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Silk shading

Also known as Needle painting, Long-and-short stitch embroidery, Thread painting, Painting with a needle, Opus plumarium

Silk shading is predominantly stitched with just one stitch: long and short stitch. The stitch changes direction, angle and colour to portray flora and fauna, people and landscapes.  The techniques are typified by subtle gradations of colour and at its best a photo-realistic portrayal.

There are two styles of silk shading: natural silk shading where the angle of the stitches as well as the colour of the thread changes to render the shape being depicted, much as strokes of a brush change angle; and tapestry shading where the stitches are all vertical and the design is rendered purely by changing the colour of the thread.  Traditionally, animals and birds are worked in natural silk shading; clothes and people are worked in tapestry shading.

In England, silk shading was first used in the Medieval period where it was used within Opus Anglicanum primarily to portray robes, but also angels and animals.  Early Opus Anglicanum is noted for its use of split stitch to depict faces, but later pieces use tapestry shading. 

Practically, when working silk shading the stitcher has several needles ‘in play’ at the same time, all threaded with a different shade.  Those needles not in use are rested on top of the fabric, ready to be employed when a stitch or two of that colour is required.  Long and short stitch is always the predominant stitch, but it is often edged with a hidden split stitch, and can be embellished with other stitches such as back or stem stitch, French or bullion knots to create certain effects.

N.B. silk shading was originally worked in silk, but is now frequently worked in stranded cotton or synthetic threads.

Further Reading

RSN Essential Stitch Guides: Silk Shading by Sarah Homfray
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The Royal School of Needlework Book of Embroidery by Various Authors
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Online RSN Courses

Introduction to Silk Shading
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Silk shading Stitches