Last Monday at our weekly embroidery group a friend brought a kit which she’d been given for Christmas; it was a Quaker Tapestry kit. She’d got everything hooped up and was about to start, and she explained the first thing was to do stem stitch on the back of the work so that there would be backstitch on the front. We were all a bit puzzled about this, and I asked why she didn’t simply work backstitch on the front of the work. She wasn’t absolutely sure herself but said she was just following the Quaker Tapestry Stitch Guide which came with the kit. Several of us had a look at it and after a while we worked out why this was the first step: it was part of the Quaker Tapestry transfer method. I was intrigued and that afternoon bought a copy of the Stitch Guide myself (which fortunately could be obtained without having to buy a kit).
The trouble with the Quaker Tapestry and its kit offspring from a transfer point of view is that pretty much none of the usual methods work on the specially-woven woollen fabric they use. It’s too thick for a lightbox transfer, too textured for prick & pounce (even if the variegated colour didn’t make it difficult to work out what shade of pounce to use in the first place) – tacking the design on through a layer of tissue paper would probably work, but pulling every last bit of tissue paper out from under the tacking without damaging or at least fluffing the fabric would be challenging. So the Quaker Tapestry people came up with a method that as far as I know is unique to them. And it so happens that it looks to me like a jolly good method for transferring designs onto other “difficult” fabrics – dark, thick, textured or a combination of the three. I decided to have a go myself to see whether I liked it.
I didn’t want to use anything too big, so I fell back on my trusted little Quatrefoil. Wouldn’t it look rather rich and luxurious done on burgundy dupion? As this fabric is both dark and textured, it would make the perfect trial piece for this transfer method.
The first step is to transfer the design to your backing fabric, which you then hoop up with your main fabric. A few things things to bear in mind: firstly, as you’re working on the back of the fabric the transfer needs to be a mirror image of the design. Not a problem here as the Quatrefoil is pretty much symmetrical, but especially important to remember if there is any lettering in the design! Secondly, when you hoop up do so with the backing fabric facing you, to make sure you get the transferred design centred in the hoop. And thirdly, make sure the backing fabric is relatively densely woven, for example a medium-weight calico. I used a very open Egyptian muslin and regretted it because it makes it difficult to place your stitches accurately. (By the way, I am using these terms in the British sense; British calico is American muslin, and British muslin I think is American mousseline.)
The Stitch Guide tells you to fasten on with a knot at the front of the work (that is to say, the side you are working on as you transfer the design, which is actually the back), taking the needle down right at the beginning of a design line. You then come up a stitch length further along the line – this in effect makes your first backstitch on the right side of the fabric. You then go down a stitch length further, and come up again where you came up the first time. This makes the second backstitch on the right side of the fabric, but also sets you up for your line of stem stitch on the backing side.
You need to remember this “extra” stitch at the beginning of every new line, but you soon get used to that. I found it helpful to think not of how neat (or not) my stem stitch was looking, but of what the backstitch on the other side of the fabric was doing. Sometimes, especially on corners, the stem stitch will look quite ragged, and the thing is not to get hung up on that as long as the backstitch on the other side is correct. Keeping your mind on the unseen backstitch (quite apart from providing some good mental exercise) helps when you need to move from one design line to another, to make sure the whole line is covered on the right side of the fabric.
As I was going to stitch this little flower in Splendor silks, I used a single strand of the lightest colour for this transfer. The Quaker Tapestry Stitch Guide says you should use whatever colour will be used on the front, so that the transferred design shows the correct colours; mainly, I assume, so that the design lines are more easily hidden in the finished embroidery – if a little does peep through it won’t be so noticeable – but as an added bonus it would help the stitcher pick the right colour for the various parts without having to refer to the instructions every time. Still, I felt that would be overkill in a design as small and simple as this, and anyway as I was just quickly trying out the method I wanted to keep it as simple as possible.
Looking at the emerging design lines, however, I wondered what would happen on the parts that were going to be outlined in split stitch. It might be rather difficult to work a nice even line of split stitch on top of the backstitch. Ideally what my transfer produced would be as close to paint or ink lines as possible, and as unintrusive to the stitching. An unattainable ideal from the very nature of things – thread is never going to be as flat as paint – but would a finer thread be the answer? I switched to Gütermann sewing thread and it definitely does make a difference: the teal arrow shows the outline done in one strand of silk, the orange arrow points to a part done in sewing thread. (The lilac arrow points to one of a couple of places where there is room for improvement in my stitch placement; a denser backing fabric – see above – would help.)
I can see myself using this method for goldwork on a silk dupion background, using the sewing threads normally used for couching the metal threads and wires: dark yellow where there is going to be gold, light grey for silver, dark orange for copper. Or perhaps for stitching on velvet or other difficult-to-transfer-onto fabrics. A useful addition to my stitching arsenal!