Regency & Victorian White Work – A Primer

And finally, it is time for another embroidery tutorial.

In my previous post, about the Regency-era cap, I promised you to blog a bit about period white-work embroidery. So here goes a little primer / tutorial for you all to enjoy. First I will start you off with some hard facts about this nifty kind of embroidery. Then I will show you another quick way of tracing patterns, especially suitable for white, translucent fabrics. After that, we will go down to business with a few basic stitches. But not to worry, they are not that hard to do at all.

To show you, how white-work creates really pretty results with easy stitches, I would like to share a little picture with you. Here is the white embroidery work that will go on my Regency cap. I finished it the other day. Yay!

Finished Regency white-work.

What is White-Work Embroidery?

First of all, white-work is called white-work because it consists of white stitching, worked on white fabrics. Basically it is the direct precursor of the basic style of embroidery that is popular today. Only nowadays, we do the same stitches, only using lots and lots of colorful thread. Especially in the Regency and Victorian eras, it was all the rage in linen embroidery: It was used on handkerchiefs, underthings, caps, white muslin gowns and all the textiles up and down the trousseau, namely bed linens, tablecloths and towels.

As white thread is not exactly visible on white ground, white-work likes to use raised stitches of different kinds. This creates satiny, tangible patterns that stand out, in the sense of the word. Back in the day, it was also indispensable when it came to binding decorative eyelets and scalloped hems. Monograms of any kind where usually worked in this fashion, too. So, for historical costuming, it is an incredibly useful, and beautiful, technique to know.

When I first researched this kind of embroidery on-line, I came across the most awesome needlework book from the Victorian era: the “Encyclopedia of Needlework” by Thérèse de Dillmont. It contains  chapters on all kinds of period needlework with many drawings and practical tips. Here is a link to the chapter on white embroidery. If you would like to learn more about it beyond this post, it will teach you all you will ever need to know.

Tracing Patterns

When we talked about Elizabethan blackwork in the other tutorial, I showed you how to trace by simply basting the paper pattern to the fabric. This method is the most go-to when working with thicker and/or colorful fabrics. For tracing patterns onto thinner white cottons there is a different little trick, which, surprisingly, is period correct. When I read about it in the above-mentioned book I thought, “Man, Victorians were really practical.”

For it you will need: your fabric, your pattern traced onto a slightly transparent piece of paper, such as notebook paper, a pencil, a windowpane and daylight. So, all you do is put your fabric, right side up, on top of the sheet of paper. Make sure everything lies nice and smooth. Then pin the paper to the fabric, placing the pins around the pattern, rather than spearing through it. Now you place the two pieces against the windowpane and trace the pattern onto the fabric with your pencil. If you would rather not use a pencil on muslin, fabric marker or colored tailor’s chalk will work, too. And done. Below you can see how I did this with my muslin pattern:

Tracing a pattern onto white muslin.

 

The traced pattern, placed into the hoop.

Basic Stitches

Now that you know how much fun tracing can be, we will move on to learning some stitches. And I bet you will recall at least one, or two, from hand-sewing. To do white-work, I recommend you use 2-3 strands of white cotton embroidery floss. For the stitching above, I worked the yarn through the fabric with a very fine number 3 crewel needle. When embroidering light white cottons and muslins, fine needles really are the safest (and sanest) way to go, unless you like nasty poke-holes in the weave. ;)

Back-Stitch

All in all, the back-stitch is no different from the back-stitch you know from sewing. It is used to outline the pattern on the fabric. Additionally, it gives support and padding to all the raised stitches, which are worked over it. Use small, even stitches for your outlines. When you use it for padding, the stitches can be longer and messier, as nobody will see them when you are finished. A special variant is the “knot stitch” which is nothing else but two rows of back-stitch worked right next to each other with their stitch patterns matched up.

from “Encyclopedia of Needlework”.

Satin Stitch

Now, this one is probably new to you. It is the simplest filling stitch that is still used to date. I like it because it creates nice, smooth textures. On the downside, it also eats up a lot of thread. To work it, you first need to outline and pad the area you would like to fill with back-stitching. Otherwise, satin stitch has a habit of caving in. If you work very short satin stitches, you can forgo the padding.

To work it, you come up with the thread on one side of the outline. From there, you take it horizontally to the opposite outline and go back down. Repeat this on the underside of the fabric and come back up right next to your first stitch. Only pull the thread until it lies flat. Otherwise you will and up with something crooked. A variety I like it the split satin stitch, which consists of two columns of satin stitches: one goes from the first outline to the center of the filled area, the other from the center to the opposite outline.

Satin Stitch, source: Stitching Cow.

 

Overcasting, Button-Holing & Eyelet-Making

Now to the fun part of white-work: Eyelets and scallops. Those sound creepy in the beginning, but once you try them, you will love them on the spot. Both eyelets and hem scallops are raw when you cut them out, so they need to be bound, much like in regular sewing. The stitches used for this are also two old friends: the buttonhole, or blanket, stitch and the overcasting, or whip, stitch. You work them much like you would when hand-sewing a hem or buttonhole.

from “Encyclopedia of Needlework”.

A much-loved application of overcasting us the embroidered eyelet. At first, the thought of making these sort of crept me out. So I have decided to give you a little step-by-step guide on how I make them, to save you the trouble of getting all fretful yourselves. ;) First, you outline the uncut eyelet with a circle of back-stitching. You then poke a hole into the center with a fine tailor’s awl or thinnish knitting needle. For bigger holes, you would cut out the center with fine contour scissors. Sharp cuticle scissors work, too, by the way. ;) Then you bind the eyelet as follows:

Step 1. Come up right next to your outline and bring the needle towards the center of the eyelet.

Step 2. Move the needle through the hole in the center. Then go back into the fabric from underneath. Now you should come up right next to where you started out.

Step 3. Repeat until you have gone all the way around the eyelet, covering the whole inner edge with thread. After your last stitch, go back down in a slanting motion and secure your thread on the back.

 

Note that, with eyelets, it is perfectly fine to pull the stitching a little more tightly. This way, the hole will stay open. To get an idea of what you can create by using the different stitches in combination, here are two little WIP picture of my Regency pattern where you can see all the above-mentioned techniques in action:

Half-done embroidery with outline, padding and finished cover stitches.

Back-stitch in and split satin stitch progress.

And this concludes our little white-work primer. I hope it will be helpful to some of you and inspire some stunning new creations.

Love, Nessa

Useful links:

Encyclopedia of Needlework by Thérèse de Dillmont (1886).

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6 thoughts on “Regency & Victorian White Work – A Primer

  1. Abigail Polston says:

    Thank you SO much for posting this!! I have been puzzling over whitework for a while and haven’t actually had the courage to pick up a needle and try it. Question – what do you use to reinforce the embroidery on light muslin? Or do you just take care to stitch lightly, and don’t use any backing?

    • Nessa says:

      Hi Abigail. :) No problem at all. After looking into the things about white-work that were around online, I was puzzled, too. That is why I decided to write it all up. :)
      And usually, I don’t use backing when embroidering muslin. Instead, I use the finest needle I can find and take care not to tug too hard. If you feel safer working with backing, I would recommend using an extra layer of the same fabric. Anything stiffer, like canvas or the paper stabilizers used in machine embroidery, does not work too well as it sometimes causes the thread to tighten too much. Hopefully this will help you a little. :)

  2. Tea in a Teacup says:

    I am about to try my hand at whitework! I have just bought some muslin to have a practise on. I also found the 1886 needlework book, and it looks really useful to have a guide as to what was normally done. I am not all that good at embroidery so we will see how it goes….

    • Nessa says:

      Wishing you the best of luck with your embroidery. The book really is a wonderful resource and I think it is even meant for the historical housewife doing a little needlework here and there. It will turn out great, I’m sure. :)

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