As a continuation our book review series about vintage embroidery books, we explore Design in Embroidery by Kathleen Whyte with contributing writer and textile artist Elaine Lipson. See previous posts on The Art of Embroidery by Françoise Tellier-Loumagne and Design for Artists and Craftsmen by Louis Wolchonok.

Today’s explosion of interest in stitching owes a lot to the last embroidery and needlework renaissance in the 1960s and 70s, when experimental forms of modern design began to be integrated with traditional techniques. The beautiful books of that era have so much to offer us now, and Design in Embroidery is one of those treasures.

Author Kathleen Whyte (1909 – 1996), a Scottish embroiderer and educator who became the head of the Embroidery Department at the Glasgow School of Art, breaks down process and breaks through convention even as she honors centuries of tradition in court and ecclesiastical embroidery — she was commissioned by many churches, including the Church of Scotland, and made a stole for the Queen Mother Elizabeth. Today her work is in the Victoria & Albert and the Royal Scottish museums, and Design in Embroidery offers all of us a master class in her approach to design.

Whyte was influenced by the color and vibrant culture of India, where she spent some of her childhood in the 1920s, yet as with many of the art and craft books of the time, most of the plates are in black and white. In a way, that’s good, as it re-orients our eyes to texture and composition. Yet it’s clear from Whyte’s “Colour and tone” chapter that color excites her. Each chapter offers a series of prompts — Whyte calls them opportunities — and working through these prompts alone would give any stitcher a clear path and a rich foundation of ideas and inspiration to work through.

Design in Embroidery includes only a few stitch diagrams; Whyte includes a short bibliography of stitch dictionaries and historical reference books at the end, but assumes some knowledge of how to use the basic tools and methods of embroidery. Many of the photos are student work. At the heart of the book, though, are chapters on design, shape, pattern, proportion, composition, and designing — choosing and arranging, in Whyte’s words — that make this a comprehensive book for artists who want to push themselves past the basics.

At the book’s end, Whyte offers a chapter she calls “Being ingenious,” a wonderful homage to creativity. “Ingenuity is a quality which should permeate the whole activity of embroidery,” she says, advocating everything from using found objects to building ideas in paper and string. (This is followed by a caveat to edit and design well and avoid the “tortured appearance” of overwork.) The examples she uses look joyful, original and modern, and beautifully made. “Ingenuity is a necessary part of all design thinking,” Whyte says, using a phrase that’s become foundational today. The goal is for the work to “induce a childlike quality of absorption and final delight — the fascination of ingenuity.” As so many artists have shown us, practice and mastery return us to delight, and Whyte shows the way for embroiderers brilliantly.

Shop Design in Embroidery here.


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