A week or so ago I was in sudden need of a butterfly. (What? Have you never needed an urgent butterfly?) For various reasons I wanted it to be a stand-alone butterfly, if possible modelled on the painted lady. It seemed that stumpwork was going to be called for…
Now if you are a regular reader of these stitchy outpourings of mine you will know that stumpwork is one of only a few needlework techniques which do not appeal to me. Like blackwork and whitework the results can be stunning and I admire what people do with them, but I rarely feel the slightest inclination to try any of them myself. So I’m still not quite sure how I ended up with Sarah Homfray’s Holly Blue stumpwork kit last summer. But I did, and I completed the butterfly (described at the time as “what is likely to be my one and only stumpwork finish”), and I knew that somewhere in my craft room there was the box with the instructions and some left-over wire. My second stumpwork venture was about to begin.
As this is not a technique I have a great deal of experience with, I wanted to do a bit of planning first – and that involved making a sketch with colour notes for the silk shading that was to turn a piece of stiff interfacing into a recognisable butterfly. Interestingly, I had come across an article some months ago with the intriguing title “Stop drawing dead butterflies”, which pointed out that what we think of as a typical butterfly shape with the tips of the top wings perkily pointing upwards (like the holly blue above, in fact) is only ever achieved by dead butterflies pinned onto a board – a live butterfly will hold its top wings so that their top edge is much nearer to horizontal, with the tips pointing outwards not upwards. Although I felt that I was possibly taking on a bit too much in trying to change the shape to a more naturalistic one, I attempted to at least include it in my sketch.
The next step was to cut the butterfly shape from heavy-weight interfacing, and as you can see I wasn’t brave enough to diverge dramatically from Sarah’s shape, apart from elongating the top wings a little (which seemed more suitable to a painted lady) and pushing the wing tips down ever so slightly. It’s a start, but on a report card it would definitely get a Must Do Better! More fun than wrestling with the butterfly shape was choosing the threads; I went for some overdyed stranded cottons by Carrie’s Creation. The company unfortunately seems to have ceased trading, which is a shame as they had some lovely threads (silks as well). The threads are not variegated but they are very subtly shaded, and I figured every little helps when you’re trying to shade a butterfly. You can see the shading of the thread quite nicely in the brown on the wing tip.
The picture above also shows the first, preparatory stages of the stitching: attaching the interfacing to a calico background, shaping paper-covered wire (this is a 28 gauge) very closely all around the interfacing, and attaching it with small couching stitches. At this point the stitches can be relatively widely spaced – you’re just holding the wire in place until it’s going to be completely covered in closely-stitched buttonhole stitch.
Because I am by no means an expert in needlepainting or silk shading, I decided that I wouldn’t even try to go for taxonomic accuracy; my aim was a recognisable approximation. So I limited the palette to a dark brown, a not-too-bright white, orange and beige; I also picked a mid-brown that would come into play in the body. For the top wings I wanted some white spots in the dark brown, and some dark brown markings in the orange. These were all worked in silk shading or long & short stitch, which meant working with two threaded needles at a time for those mixed areas; the only stitches worked on top of others were the long thin brown veins on the orange. The bottom wings had a swirly bit where the orange and beige intertwined, which I worked in long & short, but I also wanted to put in some very small brown dots, and doing those as part of the silk shading was a bit too much of a challenge for now (I’ll keep that sort of detail for my RSN Silk Shading module, if I ever get to that) so they were worked over the top of the orange stitching.
When all the wings had been stitched, and I was satisfied that they were reasonably symmetrical (“perfectly symmetrical” was never going to happen, but then nature isn’t like that, is it? If it is, please don’t tell me) it was time for the buttonhole surround. This secures the wire outline to the calico, so that the butterfly can be cut out once the stitching is complete. Now one of the things I was least happy with in the holly blue was that very noticeable white line all around it. I have since found out that holly blues do in fact have a white edge to their wings so it is actually quite naturalistic, but I didn’t want it for this butterfly. Too attention-grabbing. As you can tell from the photograph, painted ladies do have some white touches around the side edges of the top wings and even more so to the edges of the bottom wings, so I had to get white in there, but especially along the top edge of the wing it seemed more realistic to follow the wing colours.
For the sides of the top wings I decided on a sort of checkerboard effect, or perhaps zebra crossing effect would be more accurate: alternating chunks of dark brown and white. The bottom wing would ideally have something similar, but after stitching three bits of white within the brown the complexity of changing colours, buttonholing with two needles in play, and making sure there were no gaps when I changed colour – and knowing I’d have to do it all again for the top wing on the other side – made me wonder whether there might not be an alternative method. As the black/dark brown bits in the white edge along the bottom wings are quite tiny in the original butterfly, I decided to work some spaced-out brown couching stitches along the wire which would then be incorporated into the white buttonhole stitch as I came across them. This worked quite well. The top and bottom outlines of the body were done in beige and mid-brown as I intended to shade the body from one colour to the other along its length.
Although it was not an immediate concern, I started thinking about the antennae. Sarah Homfray’s stumpwork kit had some black wire for the antennae (I asked her about it later and she said it was beading wire) but unlike the paper-covered wire there was none of it left. I considered using the thin wire from a sandwich bag tie, but fearing that would be too thin and bendy in the end I went with the remnant of paper-covered wire, coloured black with a Sharpie. The next step was applying thinned PVA glue to the back of the buttonhole outline; once dried, this would help stabilise the fabric when cutting out the butterfly.
When I started the butterfly I’d decided not to do the body in turkey rug stitch, which is very fiddly and time-consuming. But having got to this stage I realised I wanted the butterfly to look its very best, and turkey rug stitch would look much much better than just covering the body in long & short stitch. So turkey rug stitch it was, starting with beige at the bottom and gradually shading into mid-brown. At this point the butterfly also gained some French knot eyes. The holly blue had beads for eyes but I found those a bit too prominent; the French knots were just noticeable enough. As for the body, I may have made some of the loops rather longer than they really needed to be… still, it meant I had plenty of thread to play with.
The first cut was a very rough one, just to open up the loops and get the threads to a manageable length. Then came the more precise trimming. This is the bit I dread – as with lockdown haircuts, if you take off too much there is no way to put it back; and unlike lockdown haircuts, these stitches won’t grow back however long you wait!
Next: more cutting. It was time to release the butterfly from the fabric surrounding it. As with the body, first a very rough and ready cut with plenty of margin, after which I got closer and closer to the buttonhole-covered wire. The final cutting was done from the back, where I could get really close to the stitching. My trusty 4″ scissors once again proved invaluable in this process, reliably sharp and with pointy tips to get into the tightest corners.
Then all that was left to do was to attach the antennae, and to photograph it in some appropriate places. I had hoped to place it on one of the blue geranium flowers, but being rather heavier than a real-life butterfly it proved to be too big a burden for the poor flower, so it had to be photographed on the leaves instead.
So am I a convert to stumpwork now? Well, I think you could definitely call me a convert to stumpwork butterflies, as long as they don’t get too complicated – recently on the Needle ‘n Thread FB group there have been some extremely lifelike butterflies made up of separate wings, bodies, heads… I don’t see myself doing anything like that, nor any of the stumpwork that requires big wooden beads to cover or lots of detached stitches or too much ironmongery. But this idea of outlining a simple shape with wire, filling it in with stitching, buttonholing round it and cutting it out – yes, that may well become a more regular part of the repertoire from now on!