Once I finished the neckline, I moved on to the important part– the wisteria embroidery. Of course, I’d never really done ribbon embroidery before, so I was a little nervous about how it would go. As always, I researched tutorials online and learned a few basic stitches. I also learned that I couldn’t use just any needle– the 1/2″ seam binding was far too thick to pull through the fabric with even a large-eyed standard embroidery needle– but that I should get a “chenille needle,” designed for use in chenille embroidery. It was recommended that I use size 13 (apparently the largest available), which was a whopping 2.9 mm in diameter.
To map out the design, I used masking tape to section off where the blossom motifs would go on the bodice and skirt, adjusting until it looked good from a distance. Then I basted a line of stitching along each piece of tape, so I could remove the tape and do the ribbon embroidery directly over the (easily removable) thread.
Before starting to embroider the dress, I did a small test swatch on some leftover satin just to make sure I knew what I was doing. The needle worked fine, but the heavy stitching tended to make the fabric buckle a bit, which wouldn’t look very good on the finished skirt. I decided to use some extremely lightweight iron-on interfacing (I had some left over from the neckline facing of my Grey Lady Dress) to give the skirt enough body to stand up to the embroidery. The bodice, on the other hand, was already lined and interlined, so it was all set.
Okay, so moment of truth– here’s my very first (small) set of wisteria blossoms, which I embroidered on the bodice:
I was generally happy with it– the variegated dye worked out really well to make the flowers look more natural, and the seam binding had a nice dimensional quality to it. I used a combination of lazy-daisy stitches (for the upper blossoms) and ribbon stitches (for the lower buds). You can check out some instructions for how to do these two stitches here. I think I managed to angle the blossoms enough to prevent them from looking like bunches of grapes, which was a concern for me.
Each of the motifs on the bodice used about a yard of seam binding, and the larger motifs on the skirt took closer to two yards– it seems like a lot, but it’s probably because there’s almost as much binding being used on the back side (below) as on the front side. Luckily, I’ve got 100 yards to work with, so I shouldn’t run out…
On the skirt I embroidered the main, darker purple blossoms first (using mostly lazy-daisy stitches), and then went back and added in some smaller, lighter ones (using a higher proportion of ribbon stitches) to fill in the design a little.
Once the blossoms were set I added in some leaves here and there, first marking with tape and then using more ribbon stitches in green for each leaf.
I was amazed at how quickly the ribbon embroidery went on this dress– even the largest flower motifs took about 35 minutes to do at most, and the leaves were about 15 minutes. That may not sound like it went “quickly,” but just imagine how long it would have taken to embroider the whole thing using regular embroidery thread! And the results were just gorgeous– I seriously can’t believe I made this myself.
I will say, however, that I’m a little concerned that the swag of embroidery across the skirt is too dense, and that it looks more like a solid stripe than like the collection of delicate floral sprays that I was envisioning. I know wisteria often grows in thick, luxuriant clusters, but that wasn’t what I was picturing originally. Unfortunately, there’s not much I can do about it now, since pulling out the ribbon would leave giant holes in the fabric. Any ideas on what I can do to mitigate this issue?
And for those of you who remember the water ripples on the hem of my original design, I did try to add them– I initially used gray satin soutache braid, sewing it down by machine… but once I’d finished the front of the skirt (it took HOURS to get it all set up) I took a step back and realized I didn’t really like the effect– too contrived, not elegant enough. So I had to unpick it all… luckily it didn’t damage the fabric!
- To avoid excess bulkiness I didn’t bother putting knots in the embroidery on the back side– instead I just left long tails of ribbon, and at the very end I went back and (gasp) used small drops of hot glue to keep them in place, trimming the ends afterwards. I know, I know, nowhere near period-correct, but I it was quick, easy, and effective. Besides, the satin was thick enough that the glue didn’t show through on the other side.
- The chenille needle was the perfect tool for the job– it did make giant holes in my fabric, but they were necessary to pull the ribbon through. Just keep in mind that there’s no way you can pick out stitches without leaving gaping holes, so be careful. Also, it’s really, really sharp, so watch your fingers!
- I would definitely recommend using interfacing to stiffen up your fabric a bit before embroidering– the ribbon is so wide (and not slippery at all) that it tends to pull on the fabric as you tighten your stitches, so the extra weight of the interfacing helps the fabric resist just enough. I wish I could tell you what kind of interfacing I used, but all I know is that it was extremely lightweight (not stiff at all, more like slightly stretchy knit fabric), fusible, and originally intended for knits. I think a regular non-stretchy interfacing would have made the skirt too stiff to drape properly, but it would work fine on something stiffer like a tote bag or a pencil skirt.
- I cut my binding into 1-yard pieces to do the actual embroidery– many of the tutorials I see online suggest pieces no longer than 12 inches, but they’re working on a smaller scale with delicate silk ribbon. The rayon seam binding is more robust, and since each petal used about 3″ of binding, using shorter pieces would have been inefficient.
- In case you were wondering, I had distinct colors of lighter and darker purple because when I did my original purple dye job the first layer of color was far too light. I re-dyed most of the binding with extra purple color to get the shade I used for the main flowers, but I held back about 1/3 of it just in case I didn’t like the second version– I used that “too light” binding to make the lighter blossoms I mentioned above.