Caught Up in Knots

21st September 2018

by Nancy Williams

I was struggling the other day with a bullion knot and it made me wonder who came up with such a stitch. Tactile, textured and frustrating, the bullion knot is one of many knotted stitches which can make a piece of embroidery. Whether it be a ‘grub rose’ or a complex line of tiny bullions (as stitchers of Hazel Blomkamp’s pieces will know well), the person who first thought to wrap their thread multiple times around their needle has been the recipient of wondrous exclamations and mumbled curses through the ages.

An example of Hazel Blomkamp’s designs showing the line of bullions in the bottom left corner

It seems that knotted stitches in general have a long history.

Although I like to believe the first knotted stitch was formed by a frustrated embroiderer who couldn’t remove a snarl from their thread and decided to leave it there, in fact knotted stitches have been around since at least 400 BC.

Some of the earliest examples are from China. The Pekin, or Chinese knotted stitch, which appeared on costumes from that period, was also known as forbidden stitch. Most likely this name came from its association with the Forbidden City, home of the emperor.

Historical Chinese knot embroidery (source)

As trade increased between China and the West, Westerners soon fell in love with Eastern knotted embroidery, and adventurous embroiderers experimented with different wrapping techniques. French knots, colonial knots and the ubiquitous bullion knots were born, bringing richness to embroidery and endless challenges to the needleworker.

Sweet Sachets from Inspirations #94 featuring bullion and colonial knots

The most common style of embroidery employing bullions is Brazilian embroidery. The style got its name due to Brazil’s production of multicoloured rayon threads in the mid-twentieth century. Americans began recognising the ease of using rayon for bullions in the 1960s and this richly coloured, dimensional technique took off. Bullion knots and rayon thread? Well, let’s just say I take my hat off to those talented embroiderers who have mastered them!

Bullion rose Step-by-Step from Inspirations #94

So, next time you find yourself counting 14 wraps and then sighing mightily as they overlap, become loose, or your needle – supposedly straight but suddenly, inexplicably bulging at the eye and impossible to pull through – remember you are a part of a long history. Our embroidery would surely be far poorer without it.

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