Thursday, October 13, 2011

Let's put the gear on reverse.

I had a discussion with a friend of mine about the reverse sides of embroideries. He was upset, that people were looking at the backsides of embroideries to determine the quality of work. His oppinion is, that one should not judge the backside, because surviving period embroideries usually have a very messy backside. I would like to discuss this.

What we can see, when we look at the backside of an embroidery? Sometimes it is "messy" with threads going here and there and knots sprinkled all over. Sometimes it is almost as neat as the right side of the work and no knots anywhere. Which one is better? And is it at all relevant?

The reverse side can tell a lot about the embroidery. How are the stitches really made? Is the work done systematically or has the embroiderer jumped from one corner to another? Is there excessive use of thread where no-one can see it (waste of money!)?

But is a messy backside a flaw? If the right side is beautiful, why should we be concerned about the backside when we know that medieval people were not? Of cource, if there is too much material on the backside of the work, it can make a difference on how the embroidery appears on the finished piece.

It all comes down to one question: Which is more important factor, authenticity or craftmanship? If authenticity is more important, we should indeed try to make the backsides of our embroideries messy! If craftmanship is considered to be the more important factor, we should also take a look at the backside to give us more information of the actual work process.

Is a neat backside better? In my oppinion it doesn't matter. I try to keep the backsides of my embroideries neat, but that is just the way I like it. And judging the work by it's backside? The judging criteria include many things. The quality of the work is only one of them. And the backside of an embroidery is only one little piece of the thing called the quality of work.

So by all means take a look at the backside of an embroidery, if it is not covered. But do not judge a work by the appearance of it's backside!


  1. My backsides usually look quite messy... although I am actually getting better! Because of my own lack of prettiness at the back I wouldn't dream of criticizing any embroidery on the appearance of the backside, unless it has a negative effect on the overall appearance of the finished piece. So in that I definitely agree with you!

  2. I for one would like to see hard statics on the "the backsides of Medieval embroidery are messy". Certainly some of them are, but all? I doubt it. Is it 25% of the surviving examples that are messy? 50%? 75%? or...? Is there a pattern to the distribution of messy vs neat back sides of embroidery? If so is that pattern more based on location or time period or some combination thereof?

  3. I would love to see those statistics as well! No, I don't have any more than what I have seen myself, in real life or in pictures, and that is not much, I have to admit. If anyone has any more information, I would be delighted to be corrected.

    There must have been variation on this subject then as is now. I wonder how much embroidering was done in a hurry. If the time is scarce, it is faster not to think about the backside.

  4. I thnk people who judge an embroidery by the bcak probably have too much time on thier hands and a somewhat anal dispostion. I know some will use it as a way of showing thier own superiority ("oh, mine are perfect at the back, its the mark of good work"), and I tned to distrust them at once.

    the back is the back, its not meant to be seen unless you're doing smoething intentionally duoble sided

  5. Interesting question. When judging clothing the backside is just as important as the front, mainly to look at stitches (even or not?) and such. My embroidery is however mostly messy, but it of course depends on the technique used. When doing Bayeux stitches it mostly comes out pretty even in the back, but when doing free-style-silk with various stitches and applique? Not as pretty I tell you! I think the back side doesn´t matter as long as it doesn´t interfer with the impression of the front, like when thick knots and such makes it impossible to get the piece nice and flat. With bumps und uneveness it will not look pretty in front either. Otherwise I do not care (but if thers large amounts of pretty silk or gold clattered in the back I could be a little sad...)