The basis of the many elaborate stitches which would be included under the head of couching is, as the name denotes, a laying down of the threads covering the surface to be filled in. Often in older books (pre-1890’s), some writers on the subject limit this name to work executed in gold and silver threads, but here a more general description is used, as it is often executed in less costly materials. Thus, included are the simple flat laying of threads, either passed down and up through the material or fastened at either end and caught at regular intervals over the surface thus formed (see diagram below), and also the raised and molded work which is built up of various thicknesses of soft linen-thread or of cotton, or sometimes string, and finally covered with closely packed threads of gold. In other words, the simplest form of this method of work, and the most elaborate, are included.
This is a particularly fascinating kind of embroidery, as it allows of much play of color and invention and variety of stitching. Color may lie upon color, and be caught down with spots of yet another shade, and the silks or gold, spread out flat and untwisted, shine and show to their best advantage. A network of one shade of color over another is often produced by employing this final stitching in various diaper patterns over the loose surface of silk or gold, such effects being often very elaborately worked out.
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The above diagram (Fig. 1) gives the simplest possible way of using the stitch, and one which is constantly seen in Oriental and Italian hangings of the seventeenth century. The design is filled in by long threads stretching from side to side, either passed underneath and up again, as in satin-stitch, both sides similar, or the needle going down and up again on the same side as close as may be, the silk being thus all on the surface. Next, threads are laid at right angles to the direction of these lines, are also passed from edge to edge, then caught down at regular intervals by little stitches placed alternately so that they form lozenges or squares over the form which is being worked upon.
The usual method of laying down the stitches in this form of couching will be seen in Fig. 2. In the work alluded to, the filling and the crossing lines are usually all wrought with the same color. The surface thus produced is admirable in its shining texture, but one feels the want here and there of a little more play of color, to which all of these types of stitches are, as aforesaid, particularly adapted.
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So far, our work is very simple, though care and attention will be needed to keep the threads beautifully flat, and, if floss-silk is used, to keep even the suspicion of a twist from it; care also in laying the crossing threads at moderately even distances. Variety can also be made by crossing the threads lattice-wise — first one way and then the other, and catching them down with any little stitches that occur to the worker.
The next stage of elaboration will require more skill and attention, and, being more valuable artistically, will repay the extra trouble taken. Instead of covering the design with threads laid directly on the ground, it (the design) is stuffed or raised to a certain height by one or two or more layers of linen thread loosely caught down at intervals, or even by cotton wool, which would then, however, have to be covered with a thin muslin to keep it neat; the work thus prepared is then covered with its final layer of silk or gold thread or what not. This molded and raised work is best adapted for appliquéd work, which is cut and “applied” to another ground. It is a rather stiff and formal method of work, unless done on a large scale for bold decoration to be seen at a distance. If executed on a small scale, the materials should be chosen very fine and pliable, and the work itself be extremely minute and raised, for we never get with couched work that graceful flow and sweep of one stitch on another which those methods give us in which the needle follows the curve and swing of the design. The characteristics of these types of stitches lie chiefly in richness of invention in the stitching, and in beautiful color and materials.
The diagram (Fig. 3) will so show how the stuffing threads lie, with the sharply marked lines for indicating the veins sewn on over them. These, again, are hidden by the threads of silk or gold, which must always be laid at right angles to the direction of the last layer of stuffing. The veins can be clearly defined by a line of stitches on either side, or can be left merely indicated in the course of sewing down, which will be enough if the vein line be well accentuated.
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This sufficiently characteristic method of couching will be guidance for other varieties, and it will be borne in mind that “gold couching” is no special stitch which has to be learned anew, but simply couching as described here, worked with gold thread and cord, and only far more difficult to master because of the stubborn nature of the gold itself. There is some very pretty work of the sixteenth century (Italian), in which the ground is couched in long lines, the leaves also couched flat, the flowers worked in tapestry stitch following the curves of the design, but outlined with a very thick, close, raised thread, which carries out the stiff character of this technique. The stems are in raised work, and some shields with the arms of the owners of the work are introduced in very thick raised gold, heraldry having been always a favorite form of decoration in needlework.
Precious stones, most frequently seed pearls, were often used in rich couched work. In existence is a very pretty richly designed and richly worked glove that once belonged to Henry VIII on which are portrayed the lion, the rose, and the crown. The lion, a harmless and amiable looking animal, though drawn as rampant along the wrist of the glove, is thickly wrought in gold, with a pearl eye. The crowns are also gold, and the roses highly embossed and laid thickly over with a multitude of fine seed pearls. There is also a little old book with an embroidered cover in existence wherein is inserted in the place of honor in the middle of the front board a large flat garnet or ruby. The work is further enriched by gold and pearls, but the isolation of this pale pink stone gives quite a peculiar value to the bit of needlework. These are extraordinary examples, however, and it is not advise learners to tamper at all with pearls and stones until they feel that they have reached a stage of excellence which renders their work capable of bearing the weight and accentuation that such a striking addition gives to needlework. Poor work thus adorned looks yet poorer, and is pretentious to no purpose.
It must be remembered that these and other couched stitches are all admirably suited for decorating materials which are to be displayed flat; and that for any textiles which are destined to hang loosely in folds such work is impracticable, unless, indeed, it is laid on as a powdered pattern, scattered at intervals over the surface of the cloth. For small objects on which, owing to their size, much work can be lavished, and which usually need to be enduring and firm, the stiffer forms of this technique are peculiarly suitable. It wears well, and gives scope for great ingenuity and variety; without which, a small piece of work becomes insignificant, and merely a toy of fashion for the moment.