Viking Embroidery Breakdown

I want to take a minute and explain what I’m doing to create my Norse embroidery. This style has always kind of mystified me, but it turns out it’s a few very easy stitches over and over.

The first thing I did was research Norse knotwork designs to get solid on the mode I was looking at. According to Thor Ewing’s Viking Clothing, Norse knotwork borrowed heavily from the Celtic style but later incorporated stylistic elements of other cultures with which they came in contact. This allows for a variability and flexibility that’s comforting for a newbie to the form like me. After looking at a range of different designs I started sketching. I started with simple lines kind of going, “ok, I know I want the pattern to move kind of this way” and then added the major elements and knots and weaving as I went. Pretty soon it looked half decent.

I have a really good eye for relative spacing, so I didn’t scale up my drawing mathematically. I just eyeballed it. If it was a more geometric pattern or something with evenly spaced repeats, I’d measure.

Step 1 is to draw the pattern on with a water-soluble, temporary marking pen or pencil. Some people use chalk, but I have a strong aversion to chalk and all that it stands for. This time I’m using a washable colored pencil. The marks stay on just long enough to do step 2.

Step 2 is my outline. Using three strands for a nice thick line, I do a running stitch along the intended line segment, and at the end I turn around and do an alternated running stitch back, using the same holes to create a solid line. It uses less floss than a backstitch and the reverse is much neater.

Step 3 is the fill. Once the outline is complete, I do a line at a time of split stitch. Each line is snug to the one before. Any spacing between them resulted in a striped look, but if they’re right up next to each other it’s a solid fill. Following the curves of the head rather than trying for straight lines encourages the image of shape and in more complex pieces can even give the impression of dimensionality and movement, which is pretty amazing. The picture below demonstrates how the split stitch works. I’ve been trying to figure out how these beautiful and complex designs are accomplished and this stitch is the secret. With silk or wool floss, the stitches melt into each other to create beautiful solids with a subtle grain to highlight details like drape or fur. I look forward to playing more with this technique in the future.

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