Focus on Embroidery: Shadow Work

Rissa Peace Root 2005

   
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Shadow work is a very subtle and interesting form of embroidery. The basic idea is to use sheer fabric where only the barest outline of the pattern appears on the surface and the crisscrossed threads underneath show through the sheer fabric.  This effect can be used in a variety of ways with a wide array of designs and themes.  It is a technique I use quite often in my Crazy Quilting, because it makes such effective use of sheer fabrics.

White on white is probably the oldest and most common form of shadow work, which is why it is often lumped in with White Work, but there are unlimited color possibilities.  Colored threads and variegated fibers really add visual interest.  The sample at the top of this article was stitched with Needle Necessities Over-Dyed Floss. I also use floche, flower thread and metallic threads in my Shadow Work designs.


Designs worked in DMC Flower Thread on spark organdy from my wedding dress.

Shadow work is most often done using the herringbone stitch on the reverse side of the fabric, leaving a clean back stitch outline on the top side. This is referred to as the "Reverse Herringbone" or "Closed Herringbone" stitch. The small stitches, usually less than one eighth of an inch long, are worked evenly along parallel design lines most of the time, with back stitches filling in lines and oddly shaped places.

There are several variations; the most common is working a backstitch on the topside of the fabric from one side to the other, which also creates a herringbone on the reverse. This stitch is called the "Double Back Stitch" or "Inverse Herringbone" and is the method I use, because it is the only way I can make sure I am not meandering or missing stitches. Click here to see this method diagramed in detail.


Design worked in cotton embroidery floss on spark organdy with silk ribbon accents.

Any fabric sheer enough to allow the thread to be seen can be used. The most common types are organza, organdy, voile and batiste. There is a wide range of fabrics with varying degrees of transparency for you to try. Fabric content is not important, as long as the thread will show through. It is best to pre-wash your fabric if you use cotton batiste, since shrinkage could possibly mar the design once stitched.

Any fine needle with an eye big enough to accommodate the thread of your choice can be used, but I tend to prefer sharps. Just remember, a larger hole will make it easier to learn the stitch, but a smaller one will give a better over all appearance to your finished design. This is not an exact science, experiment with a few needle choices to see which works best for the technique you prefer.

There is an unlimited supply of design sources for Shadow Work.  Since the whole concept is an outlined design, almost any line drawing can be used. Stencil patterns are a great alternative, since they require little planning, because the design elements do not share sides. Many Punchneedle, Red Work and general embroidery designs can also be utilized with this technique. Some of my favorites sources are the Dover books for floral designs and monograms.  Stained glass patterns and coloring books are another excellent source.

Just for Crazy Quilters

When piecing sheer fabrics, always use a lining fabric.  Simply pin the two fabrics together and treat them as one while piecing.  Having the two layers will insure that the foundation fabric will not show and gives you additional camouflage for starting and stopping your work. I always mark my pattern in pencil and then hoop the whole block, because there needs to be enough tension to keep the design from skewing. When you stitch your design, remember that only what you stitch between the sheer fabric and the lining fabric will show.  It takes a little time to get used to stitching through just the top layer for Shadow Work designs, but the trade off is that you have more flexibility in working without having stray threads or knots mar your design.


Design stitched in variegated over-dyed embroidery floss on spark organdy.

Tip and Tricks:

  • Try to go back through the same holes to keep your stitches even, but be careful not to *split* the existing stitch as you are working. Sheer fabrics tend to spread at the needle hole, so there will be some shifting.
  • The smaller your stitches, the better your coverage. Start at about one eighth of an inch and see how it looks.
  • If one side of a design is longer than the other, then you will have to compensate by using slightly longer stitches on the outside and slightly shorter stitches on the inside of the curve.
  • To do veins in leaves or the lines in pansies,  fill in across the whole element with reverse herringbone or double back stitch, then back stitch the veins.
  • Use great care when transferring your design. Remember that if the line you are using as your stitching guide is not straight, then your stitches will not be either! I like the organic look of hand drawn designs, so sometimes my work meanders a little bit. It all depends on the effect you are trying to achieve.
  • Shadow work designs can be worked into crazy quilting by doing the shadow work then backing the sheer fabric before sewing into place, but it can also be worked on a pieced block.

Print resources:

Pullen, Martha. Shadow Work, the Easy Way. The Martha Pullen Company. 64 Pages. No ISBN available

Michler, J Marsha. Shadow Work Embroidery: With 108 Iron-on Transfer Patterns. Dover Press. 52 pages. ISBN: 0486402894

Yedziniak, Deborah. SHADOW-WORK EMBROIDERY. Threads Magazine. June/July 2001, Issue 95. Page 36.

Design possibilities:

Bryant, Claire. Small Floral Iron-On Transfer Patterns. Dover Press. ISBN: 0486270327.

Grafton, Carol. A Treasury of Art Nouveau Design and Ornament. Dover Press. 144 pages. ISBN: 0486240010.

Relei, Carolyne. Art Nouveau Windows Stained Glass Pattern Book. Dover Press. 64 Pages. ISBN: 0486409538

Sibbett, Jr., Ed. Art Nouveau Designs. Dover Press. 48 Pages. ISBN: 0486241793.

Sibbett, Jr., Ed. Art Nouveau Floral Iron-on Transfer Patterns. Dover Press. 48 Pages. ISBN: 0486246418.

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