Afghan Embroidery – How do they do it?

May 8, 2016 at 7:04 pm | Posted in Embroidery | 6 Comments

Last week I had the opportunity to see the Forest for Ever exhibition – one of a series of projects coming out of a German-Afghan non-profit initiative that aims to strengthen and preserve the traditional needlework skills of Afghan women while giving them the opportunity to earn some extra money with their stitching. You can learn more about this project at their website.

I admired the embroidered pieces as well as the creative uses the European needleworkers and quilters had made of them, and as is inevitable at those events, fell in love with a set of embroideries that were for sale together with the invitation to take part in the next such project.

Here’s the piece I ended up with:

Afghan embroidery motifs

While most stitching consists of some variation of satin stitch, these ones were special in using a kind of openwork in the left two motifs, and I think that is what drew me to them. Here’s a close-up of one of them:

Open-Work Apple

Most of the stitches used can be recognized immediately: There’s satin stitch, buttonhole stitch for the edges, some stem stitch and chain stitch for creating lines. Things got interesting when I took a closer look at some of the wider satin stitch areas that were obviously tacked down in some way in the middle. Looking at the variegated areas you can see that the stitch is worked line-by-line and not in several passes.

Afghan fruit with zigzag

When looking at the zigzags on the left, you can see the blue one in satin stitch, and the brown, yellow and green ones below with that little tacking stitch in the middle. When looking at the backside in order to find out how exactly this was stitched, I was surprised that there were no stitches at the backside in the area where the tacking stitches are:

Afghan motif with zigzags - backside

I was stumped for about half a day until I remembered running across a stitch like that when looking for ways to decorate my raw-edge appliqué a while back. I found it in Art in Needlework, a needlework book published in 1900 that I prepared for Project Gutenberg together with other volunteers from Distributed Proofreaders a few years ago. The stitch is fittingly called “Oriental Stitch” there. Looking at the oriental stitch sampler, you can see the same effect we see on the Afghan motifs, especially on letters A, B and C:

Art in Needlework - Oriental Stitch Sampler

Here’s the backside:

Art in Needlework - Oriental Stitch Sampler - Back

And here’s how it is worked:

Art in Needlework - How to work Oriental Stitch

Fits the evidence perfectly, doesn’t it? There’s a reason why I’m passionate about preserving those old needlework books! I don’t think I have seen this stitch anywhere else, and that includes the very thorough Encyclopedia of Needlework.

So, now the riddle is solved, what am I going to do with those pretty little pieces of art? I already have about half of a crazy idea, so watch this space for more!



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  1. This is beautiful embroidery! Whomever stitched them did a really lovely job! 🙂

  2. You are an embroidery detective. They are amazing

  3. Now my simple embroidery effort really looks lame! Thanks for sharing these patches with us, and the documentation of the stitches used. I’m also glad you’re so dedicated to preserving the older stitchery books. I KNEW there were more stitches out there than is commonly found in how to books these days! I may not practice them all but I sure do get a kick out of learning about them.

  4. […] the Afghan Embroideries I was so excited about a few months back? I’ve been sorting out ideas for what to do with […]

  5. Sorry I am late, I’ve been kinda out of the loop with embroidery of late. I just want to thank you for heping to bring that book “Art in Needlework” to us. It is an interesting book and one of my go to ones.

  6. Wow thanks. I will have to look at the book on line. I have several very old embroidery books I have collected over a life time. I need to get them out again. Booked marked your links.

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