When English colonists settled in India and saw the beautiful Mughal court embroideries featuring the wings of jewel beetles, they were captivated by the use of this most unusual material–and beetle wing embroidery became its own “thing.” To traditional Indian embroiderers, however, beetle wings weren’t seen as its own type of embroidery, and it didn’t have a name or any other distinction associated with it. Beetle wings were regarded as simply an extension of metal work embroidery. This is why in surviving examples of Indian beetle wing embroidery, they are without fail accompanied by goldwork.
(On a side note, in the 1851 Great Exposition in London, a Dublin seamstress named Miss Mary West exhibited a beetle wing embroidered dress, which received praise for its lack of accompanying goldwork. Interesting to think that the British had had centuries of opus anglicanum, so the novelty of this style of embellishment was found just in the use of beetle wings.)
Now, as little as I knew about working with beetle wings when I started this, the goldwork embroidery was even more foreign to me. I used two books to teach myself a little technique: A-Z of Goldwork Embroidery by Kathleen Barac and Helen McCook’s Goldwork. I enjoy embroidery but I’m not an expert, so I looked for effective ways of laying down metal that would be easy enough to start doing right away with little or no practice. I decided to play with an assortment of gold purl in various shades and textures and come up with a design that evokes Indian tastes of the nineteenth century, yet was accessible enough to appeal to English taste.
The design of the dress was done in just three motifs: the insects (which I already introduced you to in my previous post), a frond, and a tree of life type of design.
All of the purl used was sourced from Heritage Trading Co. on eBay and the pailettes came from Hedgehog Handworks. Also, as I prepared the beetle wings for embroidery, I separated the wings that were naturally larger and smaller than the average size so I could play with variations in scale.
For the insect motifs, I used jumbo, petite, and mini wings, plus bright gold smooth purl for the antennae. The technique I used was as follows: I cut two pieces of identical length, brought my needle up on one side where the antenna would end, threaded the purl on the needle, plunged the needle to where I wanted the other end of the antenna to be, and couched the purl into place. I finished off each insect with pailettes.
The same threading technique was used to outline the fronds, this time in medium gold smooth purl. I wanted it to be very organic and free-hand, and I didn’t care whether or not the fronds were identical to each other. For the frond stems, I used pearl purl, which is stiffer than the smooth purl, so the application is a little different. I cut a longer length, stretched it open, and couched it down between the twists.
For the tree of life motifs, I used rough purl in ivory with the same threading technique to create wavy bubbles around the wings. Then I started to get a little braver in using fancier techniques, using the S-twist stitch found in A-Z of Goldwork Embroidery. This is a finicky stitch that is easy to execute but even easier to make it look wrong. I cut hundreds of half-inch pieces of smooth purl in bright gold, but even with a scalpel and a ruler on a cutting mat it was nearly impossible to get them all to an exact measurement. Any variation on the size of the pieces or the distance between needle points took away from the effect. Because there were slight differences in the lengths of the purl, I modified the instructions in the book and reversed the direction the purl pieces were laid. The original instructions had you come up with your needle down where the purl piece was to end, thread the purl, and bring the needle down to meet the last piece in the chain. My version was to nudge the needle up where the last purl piece ended, thread the purl, then bring the needle down where the purl piece naturally wants to end.
My S-stitch only came out so-so, but a far more beautiful execution of this stitch can be found at The Unbroken Thread.
And there it is, one full panel! I have five of these, plus a more elaborate sixth panel that will extend up the entire length up to the waistline.
This dress has been nearly finished since the end of July, but I’m going to have to wait a little while to bring it across the finish line. I have other fun projects up my sleeve!