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Washing Your Embroidery


Last year someone, during one of my classes, asked me how it was that my embroidery had a luster that hers didn’t.  Why there was a sheen on my long and short stitch shading that, try as she might, she couldn’t get on hers.

You are often flumoxed when someone asks you a question like that.  You don’t know how to answer it because you don’t really know what it is that you do that would make that difference.  I went through all of the little tricks that I use, recapped on the technique, discussed it with the other ladies around the table and came up with nothing concrete.  But, it bugged me and throughout the morning it sat behind my left ear niggling.  Then, suddenly, the penny dropped.  I asked her if she washed her embroidery after she had completed her stitching.

She gave me quizzical look and said, “I thought you weren’t allowed to”.

A lot has happened over the last three or four centuries.  Our ancestors have invented electricity, the telephone, the steam train and the internal combustion engine.  As a result we can now communicate and travel with ease.  More recently, our parents’ generation and indeed our own, have put satellites into space, invented the personal computer, the mobile telephone and Velcro.  A survey done in the 1990s found that the majority of people polled felt that Velcro was the most useful invention of the 20th century.  Interesting. 

A few years ago it was the 50th anniversary of the launch of the first satellite into space and BBC Knowledge aired a programme on this very subject.  It was captivating, not least because it reminded one of how far the human race has progressed in our own lifetime. 
I grew up in Central Africa and if we wanted to call someone in South Africa we had to phone up the telephone exchange to book a trunk call.  We would then be told that there was, say, a 6-hour delay.  So, 6 hours later we would hang around the general area of the telephone, waiting for it to ring.  Sometimes it did, and sometimes it didn’t.  Very often the 6-hour delay became 2 or 3 days.   Now, thanks to communications’ satellites, I can phone the United States from my car on the motorway using my mobile phone and I will be connected immediately.  Or, if I want to save some pennies, I can wait till I get home and ‘Skype’ the person I want to speak to in the US, I get connected immediately, we talk computer to computer – and it costs me absolutely nothing. 

As a family, we’ve embraced all this new technology with vigour.  We (i.e my husband and I) get quite excited when we discover that we can do something that we couldn’t do before.  With just the click of a mouse.  Then we say to Dude, ‘isn’t technoIogy cool’, he rolls his eyes and sighs, at which point we tell him about party line telephones, life without a microwave, computer, mobile phone, etc. and writing a letter with no abbreviations, the correct spelling and proper punctuation, that had to be posted.  With a stamp.  At the post office. 

By the time we’ve finished reminiscing he’s left the room, got into his car and is halfway to his girlfriend’s house.

Europe in, let’s say, the 18th century did not have embroidery thread like we have today.  By and large, embroidery was done with wool, what we would today call crewel wool.  These wools were dyed with natural dyes which were not colour fast and therefore, it was not a good idea to wash your completed article because the colours were likely run.  In addition to that, the manufacture of textiles was such that our grandmothers could not be certain that the fabric wouldn’t shrink or distort. 

So our forebears did not wash their embroidery on completion.  Perfectly sensible, although the thought of all those royal and ecclesiastical garments being worn regularly and never washed is rather unpleasant, but we won’t get into that. 

It is now 2013.  We have all sorts of wonderful threads, yarns and wools in an array of exquisite colours.  Any colour you want you can find, and the dyes are colour fast.  If you are using a decent quality product, your colours will not run.  They just won’t. You can soak them in detergent, wash them with Sunlight soap, and even launder them in benzine. 

So, can someone please explain to me how it is that the (not) washing myth is still out there?  Why, if you want to enter a piece of embroidery to be judged by judges from either an Embroiderers Guild or the WI, one of the rules is that it may not be washed?  Somebody I know once asked posed this question to one of these judges.  She was told that it was because stitchers didn’t know how to iron their work after they had washed it.  How patronising.

I’m sure that my life is like the lives of most people in the world today.  It moves at quite a pace.  And the embroidery that I do every evening in front of the telly is my relaxation.  It gives me my daily hours of pleasure and reward.  More often than not my best friend, Neville the Boxer, is lying on the couch next to me and if not, he pops by for a pat.  Which I give him, and which is why I’m always picking dog hairs off my work. 

Although I do wash my hands often like every other person, I have natural body oils that come off on my thread, particularly if I’m using white.  If I’m working on a large project it can take me up to two months.  I put it in a plastic bag when I’m not working, but inevitably it picks up grime.  It’s unavoidable in this world of pollution and domestic workers who think it is an imposition if you suggest that for a house to be properly clean, it should be dusted.  If I didn’t wash my embroidery I might as well throw it away and, to have to work in such a way that it didn’t get, even a little grubby, would take all the pleasure out of the pastime. 

My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that if something is bound up by too many rules it puts people off.  Where my generation is concerned, many prospective embroiderers had any future pleasure destroyed in childhood by zealous domestic science teachers, or nuns who had rulers with which to smack offending hands. 

I don’t think that there should be rules that attach to any creative pursuit but if you think that you need to, at least, know what the they are then you must not get too bound up, treat them rather as general guidelines but feel free to break them.  Because, it’s when you break the so-called rules and give your creativity license to fly that you will produce your best work.  The majority of the ‘big names’ out there are precisely those artists that are breaking the rules.  They will not be told what to do, or not do, by anachronistic organizations that are clinging to the past.

That is fortunate because it is those artists that are going to keep embroidery alive and kicking. 

Our children have grown up in a world that embraces a whole lot more freedom than we grew up with.  Elitist is a dirty word. They question and debate things, learnt that whilst they may still respect their parents and those older than them (but only if they earn that respect), they are allowed to disagree with them.  If we want them to embroider, we need to make it less elitist and intimidating.  Throw out irrelevant nonsense so that everyone feels they can at least give it a try. 

And this business of not washing your embroidery must go.

If you think about it logically, with all the dust and grime picked up along the way – no matter how careful you are – no piece of embroidery will have a sheen unless it has been washed.  In fact, you MUST wash your embroidery.  It brings it to life.

And this is how I do it:

·         Rinse it well in cold water to get rid of any lines that I may have drawn with a washout pen. 

·         Soak it for a few hours in tepid water mixed with a teaspoon or two of good detergent.   

·         Swish it around a bit before rinsing it in cold water. 

·        If I find there are marks – perhaps chalk paper lines – that haven’t washed out, I scrub them gently with pure soap on an electric toothbrush.

·        I then rinse again to make sure that no soap or detergent remains, squeeze out the excess water, place it flat on a towel and roll up that towel.

·       I squeeze the towel with the embroidery inside it to get rid of any remaining excess water.

·       Thereafter, I stretch the damp embroidery in a plastic (not wooden, it will stain the fabric) hoop or frame that is larger than the embroidered area and place it in front of an open window, out of direct sunlight, to dry in the breeze.

·        If I have stretched it well in the hoop, I do not need to iron it when it is dry. 

·        If I do need to iron it, I turn it wrong side up on a folded towel and press the back with an iron set on medium heat.

So simple.

I have extracted some of what I have written above from an article I wrote for a local stitching magazine a few years ago.  That article was more polite and less outspoken than what appears here.  Nevertheless, as a result of what I wrote, the editor received a flurry of complaints from various Unions and Guilds threatening to advise their members to cancel their subscriptions to that magazine. 

Oh, the stranglehold.  Which brings me back to almost where I started.  Technology.  In the past, if you didn’t agree with the rules put about by those that like to make up rules, you had no option but to shut up or ship out.  Now, however, you can voice an alternative opinion, get it out there via the internet and in the process, one hopes, provide some useful advice to those who are looking for it. 

Isn’t technology cool?