Fun With Stitches, Part 1

Posted by Brett Reistroffer on

Embroidery Nerd Alert!

It's easy to tell from the catalog of patches and shirts on offer from Thread By Dawn that I'm a bit of a nerd when it comes to interests and hobbies. Everything from trashy horror movies, heavy metal, and Kaiju are represented, but selling the stuff isn't the only outlet TbD allows for my nerdery. Behind the scenes when it comes to actually making the patches you see in the store I'm also a nerd for embroidery digitizing, or the programming of machine stitch files.

A lot of the patches I make, especially on the cheaper end, are simple ones that might only by comprised of text, but for the more complicated ones I get to geek out and practice my admittedly-still-armature skills as a digitizer. Recently, a new patch inspired by Edgar Allan Poe (a somewhat frequent subject for TbD) gave me the opportunity to mess around with two different aspects of embroidery that I have a lot of interest in: color blending, and variegated thread. Basically, blending blended thread.

Multicolor Thread for Multipurposes

Variegated thread--or multicolor thread--is great for adding texture to embroidery, especially when trying to simulate objects or surfaces that would otherwise require rather tedious shading and color blending, or to simply give more depth to something that would look flat as a solid single color. In the case of the Cask of Amontillado patch, multicolor thread was a great option for emulating both the texture of wood grain and the tarnished metal bands of a barrel.

Wooden barrel

Using a reference image, the colors can be reduced down into three: the main wood color, the shadows/mid-tones, and the metal bands.

A selection of multicolor threads used to emulate the texture of wood.

It would work to simply use a multicolor thread for the wood and shade it with a solid color--either dark brown or black--but using a second multicolor thread for the shadows and mid-tones allows for a little more depth and texture, something that aged wood has a lot of.

The Technique

Wood grain always has a direction, just like stitches, so as long as you follow that direction you're already going to be simulating one aspect of wood's natural character. The next step is getting your colors right (that's why you stock up on ALL THE THREAD COLORS). Wood has a lot of texture and that texture isn't just in its 'feel', or three dimensional properties, but its color as well. Which is where the multicolor thread comes into play. By using a thread treated with a variegated dyeing process, we have multiple tonal shades of a single color group (in this case tans and browns), which emulates the natural color variation wood is known for.

Close up detail of stitches in an embroidered patch.

Next is blending. Remember when I said that using solid colors for this design would have been tedious in terms of digitizing the color blends? Well, the great thing about using multicolor thread instead isn't just that it does an excellent job of emulating the natural color texture of wood, but it also makes blending and shading a whole lot easier when digitizing. Achieving the color texture of wood using solid thread colors would mean either creating light fills and objects of different colors on top of the main fill or even digitizing manual stitches one-by-one to get the desired appearance. With different color tones already present in the thread throughout the fill--or the 'body' of the barrel--I can simply focus on the main gradient areas, those being the top and bottom of the barrel, and also a small section for a hole in the middle. As with any kind of color blending in embroidery digitizing, you simply lower the density of stitches and make sure to match their direction to the underlying object so the stitches sink in and blend properly. As long as you avoid using a solid edge, you will end up with a natural look to your shading; in this case it was a simple matter of randomizing the inner edge of the darker-toned objects to simulate shadows and aging following the grain of the wood, rather than a perpendicular line across it.

Close-up detail of stitches in a patch.

The metal bands, or bilge hoops, were even easier, as the multicolor thread chosen for them had enough 'character' to emulate age-tarnished and rusted metal by itself without any need for blending or shading. Throw it all together and you end up with a fairly accurate representation of an aged and weathered wooden cask. Of course, this use of multicolor thread isn't limited to timber products, and can be used to emulate any number of highly textured objects like foliage, metal, pavement, or anything else you can find the right color mix of thread for.

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