Colbert Embroidery

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February - ... 2019

Time for the next step in my curriculum, the next adventure: a sampler in Colbert embroidery.


For that sampler, I chose five motifs from Dillmont's book Colbert Embroideries: #14, #2, #5, #12, #15. I arranged them in a similar way as the motifs in the Assisi sampler (in short: maths), so that they would nicely fit on a square of fabric.

Colbert Embroidery, Thérèse de Dillmont, Sampler Scheme

Sampler Scheme

But Dillmont's pieces are ... well ... large, to say the least. They are mostly designed for tablecloths and the like. Not exactly the size for a sampler, much less if it is supposed to consist of five motifs. It meant that I had to reduce the patterns in size. I first settled on 50 %, but I miscalculated, and after shrinking the linen, I ended up with 40 %.


I had a piece of 45 ct. Zweigart linen left from Party in Provence, where it never got a chance. I was quite pleased to stitch on linen for the first time, all the more as the Murano (Jobelan) fabric wouldn't be particularly suited for this kind of embroidery. Murano is a counted blend, which is good for stitching the counted backgrounds, but for the surface stitches, required for the outlines of the patterns, the spaces between the fabric threads are too wide, i.e. the fabric shows distinct "holes", as even-weave generally does, so that it is hard to place the surface stitches exactly where they are meant to be. I was confronted with this problem in the practice piece before.

On linen again, the counted stitches would be hard to place, they would come out somewhat distorted. I had to make a compromise. My thought was, that placing the damask stitches on linen would be a little easier than achieving smooth outline stitches on Murano. That's why I went for the linen.

I pre-shrinked the linen (see Problems Encountered) exactly according to Mary Corbet's instructions: put it in a bowl with the hottest tap water I could get, let it rest there for about 20 min., changed the water to cold, drained it and poured boiling water fresh from the kettle into the bowl with the linen. This ice-cold-and-boiling-water procedure got repeated, the linen got rinsed one last time in cold water, then rolled up drip-wet in a towel. I ironed it for the first time when still slightly damp, let it dry, and ironed the dry linen once again. Now it was crisp and smooth - in a word: beautiful. And I could see the size coming out of the fabric already in the first bath: the water turned milky and even a bit foamy.

The interesting thing was the extent of shrinkage on the linen from 57 x 52 cm to 54 x 48 cm, that is from 22.5" x 20.5" to 21.25" x 19".

After neatening the edges, I basted some crosshairs in for the alignement of the three middle motifs ... AND ALL THAT FOR NOTHING! Why I ended up stitching the sampler on Murano, heaven knows. But this is exactly what happened ... 😕 ... so I still don't embroider on linen ...


This time, I was bound and determined to transfer the patterns as perfect as possible. To that end, I underwent a complete test run on pattern transfer, which you can read about here, including lightbox, iron-on pens, dressmaker's carbon paper and Prick & Pounce.

Embroidery, Transfer Test Run

Transfer Test Run

As a result of the test run, I decided to do the transfer with the DEKA iron-on pencil. The pencil has a soft purple lead, which can be sharpened, so it handles just like any good crayon.

Over the course of working on the sampler, every design was transferred separately to avoid fading of the lines before I got to stitch the respective motif. As yet, no transfer worked out perfectly, as you can read about under Problems Encountered.


I didn't like the original colours in the book. To me, they looked kinda frumpy. I spent a lot of time to change them, finding out what colours and colour combinations I would like. It didn't work. I found it too laborious to colourise all the little crosses and lines, whether with crayons or in a graphic program, and a superficial colouration didn't work. I just didn't get the feeling.

When I got sick of all the unavailing trials and errors, I told myself without further ado, that this will be a sampler for practice only, no need to fuss with the colours, I'll simply apply the colours from the booklet. As far as they were still avaible. Because some were not. I had to find a possibly similar substitute.


As Thèrése de Dillmont says in her booklet:

Begin by filling in the background with damask stitches done in a comparatively fine thread, such as DMC Pearl cotton (Coton perlé) Nos. 5 and 8. DMC Special stranded cotton (Mouliné spécial) No. 25 or DMC Floss flax or Flourishing thread (Lin floche) No. 16. When the grounding is completed, embroider the outlines and the ornaments in running stitch, flat stitch, plaited stitch or herringbone stitch with a thicker thread, such as DMC Pearl cotton (Coton perlé) No. 3.

At first, I had in view stitching the background with pearl cotton #8 and the outlines with Pearl cotton #5.

The trouble was that, after having had to diminish the size of the design to 40%, it got too small for those numbers of Pearl cotton. What was I supposed to do? My thread order was already placed ...

My first order took two weeks to arrive, and this was only a partial delivery, because the shop had, as I was told, to wait for one colour of Pearl cotton #8 to be shipped by DMC. Yet I enjoyed the DMC Pearl cotton, which I got in my hands for the first time. So far I had stitched with Pearl cotton by Anchor. The DMC stuff seemed to be noticeably slimmer and softer than the Anchor threads.

In the meantime I had come to the conclusion that I would be best using two threads of stranded cotton for the backgrounds and Pearl cotton #8 for the outlines. This meant, I had to place a new order, because I don't have a real stash of threads yet. So I had to swallow the pill and order once more stranded cotton and Pearl cotton #8 in all the lacking colours. I would rather have bought #12, but in my place, this size is hard to come by in all the available colours.

I was fortunate to have two colours of stranded cotton for the background in motif #12 and motif #5 available - the first two motifs in the centre row, which I had transferred and wanted to stitch. While waiting for my second order to arrive, I could at least begin to stitch the halves of these two backgrounds: double crosses in Blue fast dye (motif #12) and tiny horizontal lines in Geranium red (motif #5). Love the names they gave the colours back in those days! Today, there are only numbers ...

Problems Encountered

  • How consternated was I when after the first transfer test on a scrap of linen not only the tracing paper, but also the linen turned all yellow!
    Solution: I posted this problem right of the bat in our Facebook group, where Mary Corbet herself enlightened me about the necessity to pre-wash linen, because linen is usually treated with size by the manufacturer, and it is the size that turns yellow. What would I do without my facebook friends from Needle'n Thread!
    This was the moment, when it occurred to me once again, that linen should better be pre-shrinked before embroidering on it, at least when the embroidered piece is designed to be laundered in the future. Even if you don't plan to launder it, you never know what could possibly happen.
    You can read about the pre-shrinking process and its results above under Fabric.

  • The transfers didn't come off perfectly, there were some glitches with every motif. They resulted either in slight smudges, or several lines were nearly invisible, or the lines came out too thick or ... Now, thick lines or even slight smudges aren't necessarily a problem in this kind of embroidery. The background gets almost completely covered by the damask stitches, and even Pearl cotton #8 is thick enough to cover most of a bold line. What was worse, were the invisible parts. Since you don't want to iron on the same motif one more time on top of the already existing, there's only one ...
    Solution: to re-draw the lines with a pen. But that's a problem rather than a solution. I'll tell you why. Yeah, some folks say, lightbox tracing is THE method for transfer today, and after trying it on good linen, it is my go-to solution, too, BUT! Murano/Jobelan is not linen! Murano/Jobelan is a counted fabric with holes and round threads around the holes and all - Murano/Jobelan is bumpy! There is no way to get a decent straight line on this fabric, if you don't want to use a marker. And the only transfer methods for getting an exactly placed pattern are lightbox tracing and ironing-on (if you set aside the Prick & Pounce method, as I necessity-driven do).
    Solution? I don't have any yet. When it comes to counted fabric, I will must needs stick with the iron-on pen. Someday, when my financial situation allows, I will order one of these legendary fine-tipped iron-on pens from Sublime Stitching in the US, 15 Euros shipping or not. Up to that time, there's only trial and error with the DEKA pen left ...

  • Masking tape. My years old no-name masking tape, left from my painting adventures, leaves stark residues on fabric. After all you have to fix the tracing paper somehow to the fabric before ironing the pattern on. If the pattern is not very large, I would rather not risk using pins, so as not to damage the soleplate of the iron.
    Anyway, after removing the tracing paper of the first motif, there was an ugly, dirty stain from the masking tape left on the fabric. Fortunately outside the motiv. Washing the fabric one again with soap didn't help - the stain was still visible! I had to remove it with cleaner's naphtha.
    Solution: One more item on my to-buy-list. As I found out googling, TESA Masking tape is said to be residue-free. But so was my masking tape, only on canvas and paint. I can't do anything but try that out.

Work in Progress

Motif #12

The first motif, which went in the center of my sampler, is a three-blossomed flower with decoratively curved stems and leaves. The background filling is composed of stars in Blue fast dye and Cross Stitches in Parma Violet. The flower petals are outlined in Satin Stitch, and the insides of the flowers are done in Herringbone Stitch, the colours being Saffron Yellow and Parma Violet. The swirly stems and leaves, finally, are worked in Stem Stitch in Beetle Green.

After having already stitched several lines of double crosses, it occurred to me, that with a reduced to 40 % design, I should reduce the size of the stitches as well! The double crosses or stars were supposed to be stitched over 10 and 6 threads resp. 40 % of the size would have resulted in horizontal and vertical stitches reaching over 4 threads each, as well as diagonal stitches reaching over 2.4 threads. Aside from the fact, that any fraction numbers of fabric threads are out of the question in a counted pattern, the simple crosses between the stars would have been reached over 2 threads only, and this would have been nearly invisible. They would have looked like dots, they would have looked just ... well, bad.

In the end, I changed the proportions in this motif. I stitched the stars over 6 and 2 threads respectively, and the crosses over 4 threads.

Colbert Embroidery, Sampler, Starting with the Blue Stars

Starting with the Blue Stars

As mentioned under Threads, I had placed a new order for stranded cotton and pearl cotton #8. That was March 13. The only threads I already had available, were the stranded cotton in Blue Fast Dye for the stars in this motif and in Geranium Red for the horizontal lines in the next motif (5). On March 22, I had completed the stars, and no thread delivery in sight. So I had to transfer and start the second motif already. I finished the little red lines March 30 - and still no sign of my eagerly-awaited threads. On April 1, I dropped a line to the shop, asking how much longer it might take. They state a delivery time of 5-14 days on their website, and I am waiting already a whopping 21 days by now! On April 3, I got the answer that they’re still waiting for one pearl cotton from DMC, which should arrive this week. Fine. On April 10, 4 weeks had past since placing my order, and still no delivery notification! My attempt to call them on the phone was of no avail – it was Wednesday, and on Wednesdays the shop is open till noon only. By the time, I was really cross! Next day, I got them on the phone. The lady told me that they were still waiting for the pearl cotton in question, but she proposed immediately a partial delivery at no additional charge. Why couldn’t they do that in the first place, two weeks ago? The package arrived April 15, which means that I had to wait nearly 5 weeks for a bunch of threads! And one thread was still lacking ...

I don’t know who’s to blame for such delays, DMC or Stickteufelchen. But I’m seriously asking myself how I would carry on a webshop (which I plan to do someday) when I have ages to wait for the simplest supplies? There’s no needlework shop around for at least 100 km, I just have to rely on online shops.


But after all, I was able to take up my hoop again and continue stitching the first motif: little crosses with stranded cotton and the flowers with pearl cotton in surface stitches …

Continuing with the Violet Crosses

Continuing with the Violet Crosses

Now to the vocabulary of the surface stitches in Dillmont’s booklet. It is a translation from French, and it is, as already mentioned elsewhere on this website, in some places a misleading translation, at least related to the stitch names we use today – in other words, misleading for me. Stem stitch is called running stitch, satin stitch is called flat stitch, but upon closer examination (which is a strain for the eyes), it is a stem stitch, and it is a satin stitch. In the first two motifs, I was using outline stitch for stem stitch, but then I realised that it should be stem stitch indeed (they are both very similar, save that stem stitch is done keeping the working thread below the line and outline stitch keeping it above – the first results in a much more significant rope-like look).

That’s why I wasn’t sure at all, if the indicated Herringbone stitch for the pistils and the little petals inside the flowers was really meant to be Herringbone stitch. I couldn’t imagine working such a dense Herringbone as shown in the photos in the book, without visible spaces between the threads. Maybe rather Fishbone stitch – Herringbone, Fishbone – it could be the next mistranslation? But no. I spent a whole hour poring over the booklet and pics in the internet, until I was convinced that this translation, at least, was done correctly. And it is possible, indeed, to work the Herringbone stitch so close!

Colbert Embroidery, Surface Stitches on Evenweave Fabric, Stem Stitch, Split Stitch

Outlining the Petals in Split Stitch

The satin stitch gave me a hard time, mainly due to the alignment of the petals. I outlined the petals using floss in split stitch first, in order to give the satin stitch a better support on the edges. Someone asked me how it is possible to work surface stitches on evenweave? Well, it is possible, you just have to split the fabric threads, where the holes don’t meet the line. Other than Aida, Murano (Jobelan) is a pretty soft fabric. Not the fabric was the issue, but the necessity to permanently change the direction of the satin stitches, because the petals are arranged in a circle.

On May 14, the first motif was finished and done! After more than two months! But this was mainly because I had to wait for weeks on end (six weeks in total!) for the threads. In the end, however, I liked what I saw.

Colbert Embroidery, Thérèse de Dillmont, Motif #12

Motif #5

First Motif Finished

I had to re-draw the lines of the second motif with ink, because the iron-on transfer wasn't visible in some places. After my experiences with transfers so far, I still don't know how to solve this problem. The iron-on pencil by DEKA proved a failure in my case, despite a few quite successful test runs. Either the lines come out smudged ... or the centre of the motif is clearly visible, yet fading to invisibility towards the edges ... or the transparent paper blisters ... you never can rely on the outcome! Maybe the fine tip iron-on pen by Sublime Stitching, praised so strongly by Mary Corbet, would in fact be the best solution. The point is, that I don't have enough money for the time being to pay $ 15 shipping with an item for as few as $ 6.75, much less to buy more than one pen. 

Someone on facebook wrote, forget all other methods, today we all use lightboxes. I agree that tracing on a lightbox is a great and absolutely reliable method - provided the fabric is suitable for tracing. All relatively smooth fabrics, such as smooth linens or muslin, are, but Jobelan and other coarser weaved fabrics cause the pen or pencil to jolt across the threads, resulting in wobbly lines. 

Carbon paper again doesn't qualify for a transfer where the design has to be placed exactly at a certain spot, as is the case with this sampler. 

to be continued ...

© Design & Content: Angela Nowicki