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The Illuminated William Morris - the Acanthus Leaf!

(originally published 15th November 2015)

Gold, gold, gold everywhere…

The key feature in goldwork in this design is the Acanthus Leaf worked in Or Nue (shaded gold) - a very popular motif frequently used by Morris & Co in textiles, wallpaper, and other illustrations. Today, it is associated with William Morris more than any other design aspect.

Acanthus Leaves are incredibly popular in so many formats -

I needed a nice clean shape which would work when filled

with lines of couched Japan Thread.

Couching is probably the most basic form of goldwork embroidery, or at least seems to be when compared to cutwork (see the final blog in this series for more details). However, it's worth paying great care to this so-called basic technique, because when it's done well, it's breathtaking.

I found a lovely example of William Morris' Acanthus Wallpaper

during an online image trawl.

I particularly like the rhythm of swirling, turning gold within a shape, and plan out the general direction of the couched threads quite carefully before making even one stitch. This is especially important when working Or Nue, as the journey of the gold threads will effect the location and angle of the coloured stitches, which are in turn more visible than any self-coloured thread stitches. I think the finest Or Nue I've ever seen is worked by Alison Cole, in her book All That Glitters. You can see some of this wonderful work by clicking here.

This drawing shows a work-in-progress sketch of another

Wililam Morris design.

Whilst researching the Morris Acanthus Leaf design, I came across three colourways, all of which were lovely. In the end, I chose the green version over the blue or red, because I didn't want it to clash with the Fox, and although stylised, I wanted it to look close to real.

Or nue' means 'shaded gold' (although strictly speaking,

'nue' translates to 'naked' in French, so now I'm confused!)

I've already said that I plan my gold 'pathways' in advance, and with this design, I knew that no matter what I did, there would be masses of plunging, so I decided I would couch down the internal 'veins' first, and then infill between. This gave me lovely long, sharp points on the leaf, which was an important feature.

Colour can be made strong or paler depending on how

densely the stitches are worked. I wanted a combination

of both, to create some depth in the leaf.

As you can see in the above picture, some of the gold was more 'tail' than 'body'! I needed to leave enough gold to plunge and tie back on the reverse, but often, the amount of gold needed on the surface was in fact less than the tail! I had to be very careful with these pieces, if I didn't want to accidentally pull them out whilst working elsewhere, or indeed when plunging the gold.

You can see the leaf emerging, under all that mess!

You may ask why I didn't plunge and tie back before it got into such a mess, but once you do that, those little 'thread worms' on the back are as hard as concrete, and impossible to stitch through, so leaving everything on top until the end was the lesser evil, trust me!

Towards the end, there was quite a lot of mess in the way of

stitching the green, but plunging had to wait until it was all done.

My mum used to say that it was always more satisfying cleaning a dirty house than a clean one, and I have to admit that there's something rather rewarding in seeing a beautiful bit of couching emerge from a heap of gold thread tails...

My favourite plunging tool - a number 18 Chenille needle!

Gold threads are plunged one at a time, and always in a slightly different hole, to keep threads from twisting around each other as they go through. I use a large needle to make the hole in the fabric, and carry the gold through to the back. I use curved-nose pliers to help with the pulling!

Good plunging just ices the or nue cake - what a lovely outline!

When there are a lot of threads to be plunged, it's sometimes a good idea to keep one bunch out of the way with a bit of magic tape - just a temporary measure, but a helpful one! A pair of golds can be 'tyed back' (oversewn in place) if they have come through from the front in almost the same place, otherwise, it's a one-at-a-time job - a good long story on the hi-fi is a good way from keeping too bored during this long task!

Starting from about ¼" away from the plunge-point... oversewing stitches with a curved needle

towards the plunge-point...

...and then back to the starting point. Trim

off the excess gold thread.

Lovely little thread worms, so much neater!

Very satisfying... :)

I actually quite enjoy plunging and tying back - it's the final touch that makes all the work worthwhile!

Or Nue Acanthus Leaf done, just needs cutwork

along bottom edge. Forgot to take a shot before

I worked the letter - talking about that next time! :)

Well, we're on the home stretch now! The final blog in this series is in a fortnight's time, when I'll be doing the last of the goldwork letter, chipping and cutwork. See you then!

Love 'n Stitches,


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