A Shadow Work Embroidery Primer

Rissa Peace Root (2002, 2004) All Rights Reserved

Background Information

Shadow work is a very subtle and interesting form of embroidery.  As the name would suggest, 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, thereby creating a "shadow" pattern.  It is the opacity of the threads being worked on sheer fabric which defines this form of embroidery more than any single stitch or color combination.  Shadow work is very versatile and looks both delicate and complicated, but it is really quite sturdy and easy to do.  This effect can be used in a variety of ways with a wide array of designs and themes.  The hardest part is choosing your design and laying out the way you will approach it.  

White on white is probably the oldest and most prevalent form of shadow work, which is why it is often lumped in with white work embroidery.  Although it is thought to have originated in other lands, this ancient textile art really flowered in India, where it is called Chikankari.  As times and tastes have changed throughout the ages, so has shadow work.  Much of it is still white on white, pastels on white, or tone on tone.  However, brightly colored threads worked under sheer fabrics have tremendous eye appeal.  In recent times, I have even seen red work shadow work designs, which demonstrates how difficult it is to classify embroidery techniques, since they are often blended.  What fascinates me most about this type of embroidery is that incredible range of possibility for design sources and artistic expression. From sweet and subtle accents, to a subtle rendition of a vibrant design, to an eye popping realistic image, the only limitation is the amount of time you have in which to stitch. In all of the research I have done for this article, the one variation that I never came across was metallic threads on black sheer fabric, so I created a design and worked it that way and loved the result.   

scissors.jpg (65205 bytes) This original design utilizes DMC metallic thread  in gold and silver (Art. 280 & 281) on black georgette fabric.  Black satin was placed behind the design to improve scan quality.  

whitescissors.jpg (31547 bytes)The same design worked in white silk on white fabric has a very different look and appeal.  White on white is amazingly difficult to scan, so I had to use black satin to add contrast for the scanner.

TinyRoseBag.jpg (22222 bytes)This small organza bag was embroidered with size 12 Silk Perle from Vikki Clayton in Midnight & Purple and Hunter to give a tone on tone effect  The subtle shading of the hand-dyed silk is too subtle for a scanner, but very pleasing to the eye.  The design is a slight variation from the Michler book cited at the end of this article.  

Stitches Used

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 eight 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 design element to the other, which also creates a herringbone on the reverse, even though you are actually working the correct side of the design.  This is sometimes referred to as the "Double Back Stitch" or "Inverse Herringbone."  This is the method I use, since it is the only way I can make sure I am not meandering or missing stitches!  In yet another technique, shadows can also be achieved by working the whole element in back stitch, then weaving the thread across the back side of the fabric to create the shadow.  This method is sometimes referred to as "Indian Darning".  If your design looks weak one you have finished stitching, you can always use this weaving technique to give the thread greater opacity.  It all comes down to a matter of personal preference.  As long as the shadow effect is the central design element, it does not matter which technique you choose to achieve it.  

Click here to see a graphical representation and explanation of the Double Back Stitch method.  

frontside.jpg (62445 bytes)The image on the left is the front of the work, showing the back stitch outline and the shadow.

backside.jpg (30396 bytes)The image on the right is of the back of the work, showing the herringbone stitch.  

Thread

Shadow work can be done in most any thread, but I find that floche, flower thread,and silk buttonhole twist work best.  I prefer a single strand , since it is easier to control and less likely to knot or catch.  Also, the tighter the twist, the better the thread will pass through the fabric.  Cotton, rayon and silk embroidery flosses are acceptable too and available in a huge range of colors, but you must separate the strands prior to use.  One or two strands will work for most designs and fabrics.  You should note that the thicker the thread, the fewer stitches will be required to obtain opacity.  It is always a good idea to use short lengths of thread, no matter which type you choose, since any fraying would be more obvious when working with sheer fabrics.  Several books suggest thread lengths up to one yard, but I have found that to be poor advice.  Try a variety of colors, sizes and types to see how many ways you can interpret a single design.  

Fabric

Any fabric sheer enough to allow the thread to be seen can be used.  The most common types are organza, organdy, voile and batiste.   I have even used georgette.  There is a wide range of fabrics with varying degrees of transparency for you to try.  Fabric content is not critically important, but I seem to have a bias toward silk, especially for art items.  Do not get locked into a white fabric mentality.  You can use any color, provided you choose threads that will show through.  It is best to pre-wash and dry all fabric before you use it.  Shrinkage could possibly mar the design once stitched.  Pressing the fabric prior to marking it or placing it in the hoop will help keep your design uniform.  Since the fabrics are all delicate to a degree, you may want to use a pressing cloth.

Needle

Any fine needle with an eye big enough to accommodate the thread of your choice can be used, but I tend to prefer sharps and betweens in a size 10 or size 9 or even a crewel needle.  Since I use a method that is worked all on top of the fabric, my needle needs to be just long enough to work between the two sides of the design element.  Several resources suggest a size 26 tapestry needle, because it has a larger eye and a blunt tip.  Oddly those are the two things I want to avoid, but this may be a better choice for your needs.  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.

Hoop

A small hoop is considered essential for this method, but there are times when one is impractical, such as on small ready-made items.  This is one time that I do not recommend using a Q-Snap® or a spring tension hoop.  Shadow work needs to be firmly and evenly stretched to work small even stitches and have your design stay true to the tracing!  You may want to wrap your hoop with soft cloth or gauze to protect the delicate fabric from any imperfections or snags.  If I use a hoop, I almost always use removable stabilizer, such as Sulky Solvy®. 

Design Transfer Methods

Transferring a design is easier with shadow work than just about any other type of embroidery, since the fabric is sheer!  I have two favorite methods.  One is to trace the design directly onto the back side of the fabric, using a pencil or chalk.  Make sure your lines are accurate and clean and thin.  Most water soluble pens do not have a fine enough tip for this type of precise work.  Remember if your design is not well drawn, it will probably not be well stitched in shadow work, since you follow the lines precisely.  The other method I use is tracing the design onto a temporary stabilizer like Solvy® with a fine tip permanent marker.  The stabilizer should always be on the herring bone side of the fabric, to prevent you accidentally piercing the stabilizer, but not the fabric.   

Design Sources

Design sources are plentiful for this particular form of embroidery.  Shadow work patterns are available, but there are many other sources available.  Since the whole concept is an outlined design with subtle shading, almost any line drawing can be used.  Stencil patterns also work well and require little planning, since the design elements do not share sides.   Many punch work, red work and black work designs can be utilized with this technique.   There are entire books devoted to design elements which translate well into shadow work.  Some of my favorites are Art Nouveau floral designs and Art Deco geometric designs.   Just remember to begin on the inside of the pattern and work out, so that the threads do not cross over an area before you have been able to work it directly and plan ahead on any area where two design elements meet.  

Another design source that I have recently discovered works quite well with this form of embroidery is stained glass patterns.  Since the idea is very similar, it makes sense that these patterns would work.  The added bonus is that many of the more complicated patterns have color keys, or at least a color photo of the finished product, so that you are not left to guess which shape was meant to be the flower petal and which the leaf!  The minute I saw the elaborate stained glass windows done by Louis Comfort Tiffany, I knew that this would be something that could be reproduced in shadow work.  

Tip and Tricks:

  • This is one time where a working your ends in on the true back side pays off.  If you use a waste knot or run the ends through the middle of the herringbone pattern, you risk it marring the finished product.  This is a common mistake, and one I often made myself.  It helps to keep the thread you are working over (or back through) very close to the closed back stitches or to start with two or three running stitches that you then stitch over.
  • Do not carry your thread more than a quarter of an inch, because it will show through and drive you crazy, even if no one else sees it.   Here is another good argument for not using really long cuts of thread.
  • 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.  
  • You can also work one side several stitches ahead of the other, which utilizes more thread and creates a little variation or to compensate for unusual shapes or to obscure the sometimes harsh lines of the herringbone stitch. 
  • To do veins in leaves or the lines in pansies, do them in back stitch first, then fill in across the whole element with reverse herringbone or double back stitch.  If the line bisects the element, like a bud with two petals, then you can use two lines side by side or get creative in how to get the coverage without making the extra row of backstitches.  Indian darning is an excellent solution for this situation.
  • 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.
  • Sometimes it helps to use stabilizer when you are working with such sheer fabric.  I usually trace my design onto Solvy® with a very fine permanent marker, then position the design under the sheer fabric and hoop the two together, a single solution for two problems!
  • If you are working a design on two sides of an sheer bag, make one side a mirror image, so that one design does not compete with the other.   This is a moot point if there is an opaque lining.  
  • Shadow work designs can be worked into crazy quilting by doing the shadow work then backing the sheer fabric before sewing into place.

On-line Resources:

Shadow work specific:

Design possibilities:

Print Resources:

Shadow work specific:

  • Pullen, Martha.  Shadow Work, the Easy Way.  The Martha Pullen Company.  64 Pages.  No ISBN available, since this is self printed.
  • 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:

  • Grafton, Carol.  A Treasury of Art Nouveau Design and Ornament. Dover Press.  144 pages.  ISBN: 0486240010.
  • Ott, Richard. Oriental Design Stained Glass Pattern Book.  Dover Press.  48 Pages.  ISBN: 0486252299.
  • 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.
  • Sibbett, Jr., Ed.  Birds and Butterflies Stained Glass Pattern Book: 94 Designs.  Dover Press. 64 Pages.  ISBN: 0486246205.
  • Wallach, Joe.  162 Traditional and Contemporary Designs for Stained Glass Projects.  Dover Press.  64 Pages. ISBN: 0486269280.

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 Rissa Peace ©1999-2013

This site last edited: 01/01/13