Two-sided sampler

When my husband and I went to visit his parents a few weeks ago, they showed us a new acquisition: an embroidery that depicted a tiger on one side of the cloth, and a leopard on the other side. Apparently the technique of double-sided embroidery is a specialty of the Chinese province Suzhou, home to one of four principal schools of Chinese embroidery.

Let me say first that this embroidery was a masterwork in every respect. Both the tiger and the leopard were exquisitely realized in silk, and somehow–I’ve only begun to think about how–the embroiderer had arranged the threads so that when light falls on the tapestry it highlights and shades the animals as though they were three-dimensional.

But it was the two sides of the embroidery that most entranced me. I’ll never be a great embroiderer, but I’m a competent one, and I basically understand how embroidery works. But this… when I first saw it, I couldn’t wrap my mind around how it could possibly be done. And so of course I had to try to figure it out.

By definition, in order to embroider on both sides of a piece of cloth, the two patterns have to involve the same color at every point where the needle goes through the cloth. The difference between the pattern of threads on the two sides of the cloth may arise only from the different paths taken between points. Tigers and leopards were far beyond me, but I started thinking about pairs of very simple shapes that could be described in terms of lines that shared end-points.

The first such pair I thought of was a heptagon and a seven-pointed star. The principle was clear: on one side of the fabric, you stitch around the edges of the seven points; while on the other, you pass from one point to the point nearly opposite it and thus form a star. Of course, this is complicated by the necessity of alternation of stitches–when the needle goes down on one side of the fabric, it comes up on the other, and therefore it’s necessary not only that the two shapes share points, but that it be possible to make all the necessary lines on each side by alternating stitches.

My spatial skills are lousy, but with a pen and paper and some thought, I was able to demonstrate that it is possible to create a heptagon on one side of a cloth and a heptagram on the other without repeating any stitches or cutting the thread. I’ll reproduce my work if you’ll forgive the hideous quality of the graphic.

From there I moved on to something slightly more elaborate: text. Casting around for two words of the same length, I settled on “Warren” and “Claude”–in honor of my husband and his father (I figured I had my in-laws to thank for the initial inspiration, and since Warren and his father are in many ways similar I supposed they would enjoy being represented as flip sides of a coin, as it were).

The first challenge was to figure out how to represent WARREN and CLAUDE (with one as the mirror image of the other) with the same set of dots. This involved a little artistic license regarding the shape of a few letters, but eventually I came up with a pattern that seemed legible on both sides. For the sake of simplicity, I had originally intended to make each pair of letters correspond, while admitting that it would be more elegant to offset them such that I could create spaces between letters on one side by running thread on the other side as part of a letter. I ended up deviating from this principle once, treating LA and RE as a unit (it turns out to be pretty difficult to make L and E out of exactly the same dots, but adding A and R to the mix solved the problem). I also made use of the fact that, while it’s possible to define a line with two dots, there’s no harm in adding additional dots to a line if they’re helpful on the other side.

When it came time to figure out how to realize these letters in alternating stitches, it quickly became apparent that, whereas it’s possible to create the star and the heptagon without repeating any stitches, it was not similarly possible with the pattern of dots I’d designed for the letters. Lots of repetitions proved necessary, as well as the (still more inelegant) practice of sticking the needle through the middle of a line shared by both sides, thus duplicating half of a line in order to change the orientation of the needle and allow me to make a particular stitch on the right side of the fabric. I display the result below.

"Claude" side

(Thanks are due to esqg for her help in plotting the points of the letters on graph-paper, as well as general moral support)

Executing the pattern with thread and cloth, I came up against a couple of unanticipated practical implications of a double-sided embroidery. Since there’s no back side, there’s nowhere out-of-the-way to tie knots. When both sides of the fabric are equally important, hemming becomes more challenging. Some other technical challenges had nothing to do with the double-sidedness of the project–for one thing, the cloth proved surprisingly anxious to unravel and uninterested in being hemmed; for another, I did the embroidery in the middle of the night and in the middle of studying for exams, and it’s thus messier than it would have been otherwise. If I were doing this again, I would twist repeated stitches together (wrapping the later ones around the earlier ones) so as to ensure that they look like a single line rather than like two.  Nevertheless, as a first attempt I’m pleased with it.

Questions remain. How do techniques change when you’re covering blocks of space rather than tracing lines? Covering area seems harder to visualize to me, but it may actually be easier, since a block of color provides cover for knots and for midpoints on the other side. I continue to be curious about what properties a pair of shapes need to have, absolutely and relative to one another, in order that they can be embroidered without any repeating stitches–but I figure this as a problem for mathematicians. I’ve asked several, and await their thoughts.

Having satisfied myself of some capability to reproduce the wheel, I may turn in future projects of this sort to explanations of how they do it in Suzhou. Silkspinner has also pointed out that a similar technique exists in the medieval European embroidery technique known as Blackwork, and it may be worth investigating that as well.

I’d love to hear any thoughts on next steps, especially regarding other sources for further investigation of this sort of embroidery, and the thread-path questions raised above.

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