Ribbonwork Embroidery: Techniques and Projects
Ribbon embroidery is a form of embroidery that uses ribbon either in the needle, which is then stitched into the fabric, or ribbon that is worked away from the fabric using a different thread and then applied to the work. Traditionally these ribbons were made of high-quality silk, which made them very luxurious; today people use a wider range of ribbons, but synthetic ribbons do not create such richness. Ribbons made of one hundred per cent silk are still the preferred medium.
Silk ribbon embroidery dates back to the seventeenth century, and originated in France. Ribbons were embroidered to embellish clothing, huge rosettes were worked onto men’s coats and often floral sprigs were embroidered onto the elegant clothing of royalty. These items would have been worked by professionals in workrooms. They were very time-consuming to make – silk ribbon-embroidered gowns in the 1700s were very ornate and would have taken hundreds of hours to create. This, combined with the cost of the materials, meant that these items of clothing were very expensive to buy. Silk ribbon embroidery then flourished on the European continent and also travelled to America, where it grew in popularity.
In the Victorian era silk ribbon embroidery was more accessible and was commonly used on items such as quilts and clothing. This meant more people were able to own an item that had some ribbon embroidery on it, making it a more recognized embroidery technique. Ribbon embroidery was used by ladies to show off their embroidery skills on household items. These pieces were often worked in dusky pinks and sage greens, and therefore this is the image that people often have when you initially mention ribbon embroidery.
Sadly, ribbon embroidery went out of fashion towards the end of the eighteenth century and other embroidery techniques replaced ribbons. Ribbon embroidery was reintroduced to the fashion industry by the French couturier Charles Worth (1826–1985). As industry developed the processes involved in producing ribbons and the number of countries producing them increased, ribbons were more accessible and therefore cheaper to get hold of. This meant that, again, ribbons were more widely seen and recognized as an embroidery technique.
In the nineteenth century amateur embroiderers started working with ribbons again; stitching ribbon onto clothes came back into fashion, with ribbon embroidery used on handbags and gloves. Plain items such as shawls were embellished with floral designs to liven them up.
Today ribbon work is still a relatively unexplored embroidery technique, as it is rarely taught and practised; but once people have tried it, they are often hooked. The speed and simplicity of ribbon embroidery is always a pleasant surprise and the delicacy of the ribbons means that really stunning pieces can be created. Silk ribbon is now a thread that is mass-produced, so in theory it should be easy to source. However, with the decrease in the number of haberdashery shops in the UK, the availability of silk ribbon is mostly restricted to online shops. When you do find a supplier, the range of colours available is huge; you can really get carried away! Online you are really spoilt for choice with the range of colours, widths and whether the ribbon is plain or patterned. The only downside is not being able to touch the fabric or see the colours in real life. Therefore, some purchases may not be quite right when they arrive, but can always be used for another project.
From the moment I saw the range of silk ribbons available and then started to learn and experiment with the technique – I fell in love. It is a beautiful technique and some of the simplest embroidery stitches really come to life when stitched with ribbons. Ribbons are a little unpredictable; they crease and fold, and this movement gives them a life you do not get with other threads. A lot of the stitches used are simple – something you can pick up quickly and put to many uses, which is hugely important to me. Our lives are so busy now, having twenty minutes to sit and stitch for most people is a huge luxury. In ribbon embroidery, after a little practice, twenty minutes is enough time to produce something that is effective and very pretty.
When first viewed from the eyes of a beginner in ribbonwork, stitches look complicated, but when they are broken down, most are very simple. These simple stitches are very versatile. Ribbon embroidery can be added to other techniques; as the result is often slightly raised, it is very effective in adding dimension to a piece of work. It is rarely worked completely on its own, as you get a better effect when additional surface stitches are added. This helps to add details that you are not always able to achieve with ribbons due to the size of the ribbon. Traditionally, ribbon embroidery designs are floral, as ribbons lend themselves to portraying petals/leaves and flowers. Floral designs are still very popular, but more contemporary designs are now appearing. I like to experiment with other techniques, and use them in places where you would not expect to see ribbon.
Ribbon embroidery really is a simple technique. Having said that, some stitches and techniques are simpler than others. If you are struggling to master a stitch, use a wider ribbon as it is often the fiddly nature of a narrow ribbon rather than technical difficulty of a stitch that is causing the problem. It really is that simple. Ribbon embroidery is a very forgiving technique. With floral designs in particular, you also have the advantage of using ‘nature’ as the perfect excuse as to why not all of the petals are the same shape or size.
Designs can vary from the majority being worked in ribbons to those that have just an accent of ribbon. There are very few rules, making it a fun technique to explore. It is also worth bearing in mind that a little ribbon can go a long way. By adding a few simple ribbonwork stitches, pieces can really come to life. So think small to start with – less is sometimes more. But just to warn you: ribbon embroidery, like all embroidery, is very addictive and once you have started, it is very hard to know when to stop.
This book will take you through a large number of ribbon embroidery techniques and stitches. It will also guide you through some additional stitches and techniques that I feel work well with ribbon embroidery. This is from my own experience and I hope that you feel free to try out different things as you go. I hope this book inspires you to think ‘oh what about…’ as that is my job – to inspire you to pick up a piece of ribbon and play. See what happens. Ribbon embroidery is very free, and there are very few rules.
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