Want to know the secret to creating beautiful embroidery? Find out Jessica Devin’s approach to stunning silk shading, from how to start, through to staying on track to finalising touches that make all the difference.
Jessica Devin paints extraordinary studies of birds and flowers with needle and thread. Every tiny detail is observed. Colours are matched perfectly. There’s an effortless grace and beauty that betrays her original training as a ballet dancer. Along with a drive to push for the best possible results. But how does she do it?
The embroidery looks so complicated! Where do you start?
Normally with an image or idea that inspires me. It always just hits me out of the blue. It can be a picture, a movement or a colour. If it makes me feel something positive, I’m very likely to want to hold onto that feeling by trying to recreate it. Then I research my subject by looking at a lot of pictures and reading tons of information. Even if I’m using a specific photograph as reference, there’s still intense study.
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How do you create your design?
I sketch out my initial drawing. I used to do this with pencil and paper. Now I work through ProCreate on my iPad. Once I’m completely happy with my drawing/pattern, I print it out. Originally I drew overly complicated patterns, putting in as much detail as possible. This was very time consuming and transferring a pattern that complicated was not easy! However, I found when I drew in only the basic defining characteristics and let my needle and thread fill in the details, the embroidery came out better and more realistic. Now my designs consist of an outline and any major defining features.
Artists can mix up the paint colours they need, how do you do this with thread?
I go through my floss collection to match all the tones, hues and values that are needed. I tend to mix my thread brands and types a lot. There’s something fun about being able to incorporate different threads to add textures and details. I love using YLI silk floss or Gütermann cotton sewing thread to add in fine details. A few strands of silk or rayon gives a bit of shine. Also everything gets written down so I can develop a pattern for others to follow.
How do you choose your fabric?
The colour is determined by the subject being stitched. The type of fabric is often linked to thread. If it’s predominantly stranded cotton then it’s a good quality medium+ weight linen or a silk dupion. Silk floss means a silk fabric. I always use good quality. I’ve learned over time that the type of fabric used makes a huge difference – using an inferior fabric just isn’t worth the constant fight.
What happens next?
I decide what size the finished piece is going to be and cut my fabric, making sure to leave an allowance on all sides for finishing. No matter what, the fabric must be squared on the grain before cutting. If not, when it’s mounted/stretched, it can cause serious puckering and warps. Sadly I’ve seen some beautiful embroideries ruined because of this. Finally I overlock the raw edges on my machine.
What method do you use to transfer the design?
Usually prick and pounce, but, if I can get away with it, I’ll use my lightbox and a water-soluble pen to trace the design. Water-soluble products are non-damaging and not permanent. Like the name suggests they wash right out. Unlike heat erase pens – they’ve ruined too many of my pieces by leaving horrible permanent ghost marks on the fabric. Be warned!
How do you prefer to secure your fabric for embroidery?
Once the design is transferred, it’s time to mount and stretch the fabric. I try not to use hoops, but if I’m being lazy, I use the quilter’s style. They’re sturdier and hold the fabric more securely. But ideally, I mount my fabric on a slate frame or stretcher bars. They keep the fabric taut and evenly stretched, without the worry of hoop marks or burns. Keeping your fabric as tight as a drum makes all the difference.
Tell us about your stitching?
My process is fairly straight forward. I just allow myself to stitch, without overthinking and the piece just comes together. Although I’ve figured out a few tricks along the way:
- Always start with the elements in the background first, then work forwards. In other words, if it’s going to be covered or overlapped by another segment, it gets stitched first.
- To keep my stitches flat and laying even against the fabric, I work a single layer of stitches whenever possible. But if worse comes to worst, I’ll cheat and add details on top of previous stitches!
- I’ll place stitches, such as a split stitch outline, along the edge on top of previous stitches. Then bring my long and short stitches over the split stitch line. Adding stitches on top of others creates the illusion of depth. It also keeps lines clean and prevents the fabric from showing through where elements meet.
How else do you keep on track?
Stitch direction is extremely important. Sometimes I still draw in directional lines to keep me straight. For some reason I’ve found the longer the stitch (3/8in), at least for long and short stitch, the better the result. Somehow when you have to use much shorter stitches, they never seem to look as tidy or polished.
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What makes your embroideries so life-like?
The smallest detail can add a great deal to the overall look of the embroidery. Like using a few different shades – not just white – to add in highlight for eyes. Or knowing where the light source will hit each element and adding the appropriate shadow or light. Often I’ll use as many shades as possible to transition from one colour to the next, or to get from light to dark. I even use stitches to cover previous ones almost completely, just leaving a hint of colour showing through. It’s all about getting the right effect.
How do you keep your work so neat?
Because I really didn’t know any better I used regular knots when I first started. Then I found out that they’ll come undone over time, and it finally clicked. So I can’t stress enough how important it is to start with a waste knot followed by three little anchoring or seed stitches placed on a design line or in an element where they’ll be covered up by other stitches. You can end your thread in the same manner. Those little stitches are about as secure as it gets. They’re not going anywhere!
Original design of a peony by Jessica Devin.
Any other top tips?
Make sure you’re stitching with good quality, new needles. Old needles can get burs that will wear the floss down quickly, leaving it dull and lifeless. I’m obsessed with my Tulip size 10 embroidery needles. I can feel the difference immediately if I use a different brand now.
And keep your thread 14-18inches long. I’m still working at this! I hate threading my needle so sometimes use longer lengths than I should. I will change to a new thread when it becomes worn or fuzzy. But it’s kind of wasteful, so I try to keep them shorter.
What happens when things don’t go according to plan?
If I’m really questioning if I messed up an embroidery or think it’s not good enough, I take a photo, store it out of sight and walk away. I’ll work on a different project and mull over alternative ways to achieve the look I want. After a while I’ll look at the photograph. Half the time it’s not as terrible as imagined, so I just leave it. The rest of the time I’ll unpick the stitches. It’s one of the best things about embroidery. Unlike a watercolour or oil painting, you can just take out what you don’t like and try again.
So how do you know when you’re finished?
When I feel there’s nothing more I can add, without taking away from what I’ve already done. Adding too much can be just as detrimental as not adding enough. It takes a lot of willpower. It can be so easy to keep picking – just one more stitch here or a small change there. There’s a point when it’s time to walk away and call it done.
A Christmas Robin.
What are the final touches?
Although I always wash my hands before I stitch and keep my fabric covered with tissue paper, ultimately oils and dirt can accumulate. So unless I’m working with silks, once a piece is finished I launder and block it. I highly recommend blocking if you’ve used a hoop. Once the embroidery is dry, I treat it with Scotchgard Fabric Crafts Protector. This protects it from future buildup of oils, dirt, sunlight, dust and pet hair. Then I usually lace on to acid-free art board and add a photo matting so it can be framed. I also include a certificate of authenticity for every piece I stitch. It’s not just a nice touch for the person buying, it’s important if a piece is going to be taken seriously in the art world.