Hooked on Tambour Embroidery

embroidery-plexiglass-tambourWhen I began working at Interweave a few weeks ago, I worried that each new task on the job would lead me into a new craft obsession. It turns out that I was right: every PieceWork story begs me to research more history and pick up a needle. My latest discovery, tambour embroidery, has everything I love–a complex past in France and England, connections to Paris haute-couture in the twentieth century, and best of all, a simple technique with endless, gorgeous possibilities.

tambour beaded cocktail dress

Detail of tambour-beaded cocktail dress. Maker unknown. Yellow silk chiffon; bugle and square-cut beads. Origin and date unknown. Shown with the author’s Victorian tambour hook with a turned mother-of-pearl handle.

Robert Haven, an American master of tambour embroidery, discussed the history and procedure in PieceWork March/April 2012. He also wrote an online tutorial illustrating the stitch with a huge crochet hook and a piece of clear Plexiglass, so that readers could see how his hands moved.

This visibility can be crucial for beginners learning the stitch, but they should not become dependent on seeing what they’re doing. Tambour embroiderers chain-stitch from the back of the fabric to apply embroidery thread, sequins, or beads to the front. That fact alone may prevent me from ever mastering this technique–right and left are still tricky concepts for me, let alone backwards and upside-down! But I’m determined to try, because the results are so stunning.

If you’ve admired the beaded dresses on Downton Abbey or Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, you’re falling in love with tambour work too. French fashion houses in the teens and twenties needed beautiful results in a hurry, and surface embroidery, worked from the right side of the fabric, requires much more time. The costumers for these shows would have the same interest in speed.

tambour beaded embroidered shawl

Detail of tambour-beaded shawl or scarf. Maker unknown. Very fine silk net; black beads. Origin unknown. Early twentieth century.

Robert Haven’s article in PieceWork provides much more detail and photos that will inspire you to pick up a tambour hook. Fortunately, he also developed a companion project for beginners–a scarf with embroidered motifs. It’s where I’ll start, before venturing to add beads or sequins. Come join me in my new obsession!