Stitch of the Month
June 2006: Shading with Smyrnas

by Kathy Fenchel

There are thousands and thousands of beautifully painted canvases that are available to us through our local needlework stores. The design areas on many canvases are painted in solid blocks of color. These blank blocks of color force the stitcher to think and worry about the multitudes of stitches that can be used to fill each colorful space. Other canvases are painted in a very detailed manner. There are often several shades of the same color in each specific area of the design so that the total canvas appears to be quite realistic. Painting a canvas realistically creates a beautiful canvas, but presents some problems for the stitcher. The word shading instantly pops to mind, and it is often a very scary thought!!! Should the canvas be stitched exactly as painted using multiple colors of thread? Should an overdye or variegated thread be used? Is using the basketweave stitch the only solution? What about the dreaded long and short stitch? Its a dilemma for the stitcher, but there are as many solutions to the problem as there are questions! There are no right or wrong answers!

Surprisingly enough the humble little Smyrna cross stitch is one solution. It is a wonderful, versatile stitch for small areas. And it does not have to be stitched in the precise manner that every needlework book instructs us to use. It is OK to break the rules!

For purposes of illustration, we will use the petal of a flower as an exercise in shading with the Smyrna cross stitch. Imagine a pink rose petal. The outside edge is deep pink, but the color fades to pale pink as you move toward the stem. Using four values of pink thread and the versatile Smyrna cross it is possible to effectively shade the petal.

Diagram 1
(Click on the right image for a larger picture)

The petal above was stitched with

  • Anchor floss 59 China rose
  • DMC floss 3687 mauve
  • DMC floss 3688 medium mauve
  • DMC floss 3354 light dusty rose

The adjacent chart diagrams the stitched petal. Please note that some of the stitches are not complete Smyrna crosses and that many are stitched with the bottom X in one shade of pink and the top upright cross of the same stitch is in another color.

The easiest way to achieve the shaded effect diagrammed above is to begin by using several needles each loaded with a different color of thread.

  1. 1. Visually assess the area that is going to be stitched. If you are working with a painted canvas, note how the designer painted the area. Is it dark to light, or are the colors scattered in the area to create a mottled look? If you are trying to shade something on your own....without the help of a designer, think about the effect you would like to achieve....light to dark, mottled, or subtle.
  2. Fill in the area to be shaded with Xs, the bottom stitch of the Smyrna cross. Do not add the top upright cross yet! Stitch the Xs in rows, changing thread colors as you go along. Dont be too concerned if you decide that you have placed a particular color in the wrong can be corrected in the next step. The diagram below illustrates this technique. It is the first layer of the chart above. Only the Xs have been charted. They define and fill in the shape of the leaf. The color begins with the lightest value of pink and moves to the darkest. The gradations appear to be a little sharper than they should be, but this will be remedied in the next step.

    Click for larger image

  3. Adding the upright crosses on top of the Xs is the point where you can now soften the color transitions. You will want to start by adding the darkest pink crosses at the top of the petal, but gradually you will want to start crossing some of the Xs with progressively lighter shades until you reach the palest shade of pink at the bottom of the petal.

Its that simple! Begin by doing some preliminary shading with the bottom layer of Xs. And then refine the shading with the second layer of upright crosses. The trick is to work with several needles, each threaded with a different color, so that the appropriate color is always readily available to you.

And of course, there is a variation on this method that is also very effective for shading an area! Below is a picture of a stylized sheep. The automatic response is to stitch a sheep or lamb in masses of French knots. But the sheep below has been stitched with two shades of #8 perle cotton. The bottom Xs have been stitched in a deep taupe color. The white crosses have been stitched with white, but, the stitch has been crossed vertically then horizontally in one row of Smyrnas and then horizontally/vertically in the next. The darker color adds depth, and the alternating crosses add texture.

Click for larger image

If you have a very large area that must be shaded and you think that the Smyrna cross is too small, try using the double Smyrna cross. The color combinations are endless! Play with your thread!

Click for larger image

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