Silk shading at the RSN - and colours!

Learning Silk Shading – a look at different approaches

Learning silk shading – online with Tanja Berlin

You may recall that prior to starting the RSN Certificate, I completed a couple of different silk shading pieces in online classes offered by Tanja Berlin. Interestingly, I probably didn’t complete them in the ‘right’ order, as I stitched the fox before the pansy, and the fox was the more advanced one!

Tanja’s approach – row by row

The approach taken by Tanja in her online courses is to split your design into lines and sections. And from that, split each line in half again. Each of these initial lines represents a row of stitching. The half lines are to ensure you stagger your stitches in the typical long and short style of alternating your stitches in an attempt to not create ‘rows’ on looking at your completed piece.

Tanja also completes each row in full before moving onto the next row. You will need to change your colours within the row, and at times, you will have to change your stitch direction within the row. Changing your stitch direction may require the use of additional stitches out of the scope of your rows to help turn your corner.

‘Pros’ of this approach

In terms of online learning and initially learning the technique, I feel this is a good approach to take. The instructions can reference a row number, to which you can refer back to in the diagram. It also makes sure you don’t consider the technique as ‘long and short’ stitches, but rather ‘long and longer’ stitches. This is more an illusion however, as all the stitches are actually the same height, the varied starting point gives the illusion.

For a complete beginner to the technique, this does make a lot of the complications of the technique ‘disappear’.

‘Cons’ of this approach

As you are always thinking about the design in terms of rows, the guidance on where to place your stitches in the ‘up and down’ motion, does give your finished piece a structured and ‘row like’ look. Tanja suggests you then go back and add in some ‘random’ stitches to avoid this regimented and structured look to the piece. This of course comes with it’s own complications, as adding in stitches after the fact isn’t easy in this technique!

The actual piece you are stitching will also determine if this is a problem or not. With the pansy, this didn’t seem to create so much of a problem as it did with the fox – presumably the randomness of fur is a bit factor here!

As you have completed each row in full before moving to the next row, you may encounter either stitch direction or colour choice problems quite a while after you have stitched your previous row. This may mean you will have a lot of unpicking to backtrack to a position where you can correct your mistake and then move on. I still remember this being a problem on the pansy on both petals and leaves!

silk shaded fox designed by Tanja Berlin and stitched by Catherine Patterson


Silk shaded pansy designed by Tanja Berlin and stitched by Catherine Patterson


My RSN tutor’s approach

The reason I say ‘my tutor’s’ here is that Tanja is RSN trained. I am assuming this is an area where the approach taken will depend on your tutor and their approach to the technique. Having said that, Tanja’s approach is well suited to the online learning environment, more so than the approach of my ‘in person’ classes at the RSN.

Don’t stitch in rows

One of the very first comments I was given when approaching the rose stitched as part of the RSN Certificate was that I shouldn’t be able to tell anyone which row I was stitching beyond the first one. Nor should anyone be able to see rows in the completed. Not as easy as it sounds in my experience! A very different approach to Tanja’s which is entirely focused around rows. The stitches are to be of different lengths – long and longer. So you are still using long and short stitch, however each stitch isn’t placed in such a regimented manner.

Another difference in approach is that each row is not necessarily completed in full before moving to the next. The element is more divided into sections, and each section is completed before moving to the next section. What this has meant with my rose is that I might stitch four or five rows, and then move to the first row on the next section. The two sections will then join up and become a final section to complete.

Pro’s of this approach

This approach, despite my accounting training, does seem to sit with me a lot better personally. For me, it allows for a more flexible approach, and I am able to ‘move’ with the piece a lot more and achieve the movement from the image a lot more accurately.

I also like completing the element in sections. If I have either the stitch direction or the colour wrong (which admittedly happens more often than not), it is a much quicker fix to pull out just a section of stitching than an entire row. I also find it is easier to keep track of the stitch direction by completing sections of the design rather than individual rows.

Con’s of this approach

Despite not stitching in rows, they do seem to still appear! Blocking of colour is still a problem to be aware of. These are problems which will hopefully diminish with more practice, but both blocks and stripes of colour and rows do still need to actively avoided!

Silk shaded rose petal, designed and stitched by Catherine Patterson as part of the RSN Certificate


Silk shaded rose, designed and stitched by Catherine Patterson as part of the RSN Certificate


Another approach – fill in the gaps

What is now several years ago, my first ‘real’ embroidery teacher was Jan Kerton of Windflower Embroidery. Jan is principally self taught, and offered a different approach (and one I still on occasion go back to) with silk shading.

Like my current teachers, Jan didn’t teach in rows, but rather in sections. The difference with Jan’s approach was the way in which she set up the area to be stitched.

Firstly, stitch direction lines in the appropriate colour, were stitched in. Then, it was a case of slowly joining up the area between the two direction lines. Each stitch was somewhat ‘random’ in length (and considerably shorter than how we are taught at the RSN). I like to think of this technique as a bit of a colouring in approach – slowly your two areas will eventually join up.

When do I still use this approach? When I’m really struggling with the stitch direction! I’m not as random with my stitch placement, but sometimes having that stitch to work towards makes a huge difference.

Learning silk shading – what is your approach?

So that is my little summary about the different approaches I have encountered. Tanja’s method works well for online learning, and I think is a good introduction to the technique. I’m not sure how effective my current tutor’s approach would be to the world of online learning, although I do enjoy that way of stitching the technique more.

What other ways of learning this technique have you encountered? What method works best for you? I’d love to know more, as for me, this is a really fascinating technique!

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38 thoughts on “Learning Silk Shading – a look at different approaches”

  1. Thanks for a very interesting post Catherine. I’ve never used a row-by-row method and don’t think the regulation of that would suit me. The size of the piece determines whether I mark direction lines (with a pencil or a very fine pen) and after the first row, I don’t fuss too much if my stitches are not identical in length. I’ll also happily go back and add extra stitches. I think it’s very easy to get hung up on how we think we ought to be laying down stitches rather than enjoying the whole process but I understand that this approach is not always the right one when studying for a qualification.

    1. Thanks for your comment! And I think you are absolutely right about getting hung up on the technicalities of things. One of the reasons I wanted to undertake the Certificate was so I knew the ‘RSN way’ – it doesn’t mean I will always follow it in the future!

  2. Thank you very much for this review Catherine! I always tell my students that silk shading is like learningto write; they will all develop their own hand over time :).

    1. Very true Jessica! I found throughout my RSN piece that I certainly did develop my own style with the technique, whilst also taking into consideration the tutors comments. It’s certainly a technique I would like to develop further!

    1. It’s a technique I think is good to try a few different ‘methods’ before settling on the one that suits you the most, and also accepting that it might be different from the person sitting next to you!

    1. Thanks Alex, I’m glad you found the comparison useful! It’s also interesting seeing my own technique develop side by side.

  3. By the time I finish the Robin, I may be able to tell you, but at the moment I’ve never really done silk shading. We’ll just have to wait and see…..

    1. I’d be interested to see how the robin is taught in the instructions and what you think of it in due course!

  4. I’m just about to start my silk shading module. I did a class with Trish Burr and that was a day class. Very different again. From any of these. An interesting article.

    1. Good luck with your silk shading module! I’d be interested to know how Trish Burr teaches the technique, she is a true master.

  5. The nearest I have come to this would be the crewel work I did in wool on my bunad, but those colors were limited, and the wool was much thicker! Not sure I’ll ever be brave enough for this! A fascinating read, though.?

    1. You would be fine with this technique I’m sure Kathy! It’s a challenge and different to other techniques. But I do quite enjoy it most of the time.

  6. Fascinating! Who knew there were so many ways to tackle this one technique? Constantly being told different things must have been confusing at first, but I bet having all these methods at your disposal will make your next piece even better! I’ve so enjoyed following your progress with the rose for your last RSN assignment, and those earlier pieces are awesome too… I can’t wait to see what you start next!

    1. It might have been confusing at first, but once you get your head around it it’s good to have the variety of thought process behind you to work out what works best for you.

  7. Thank you for this post Catherine and for all the advice you give through your blog. It’s good to see that you have a website. I used to follow you on instagram but I shut my account because it was distracting me from real life!

    1. Thanks for stopping by and for your support Georgia! I’ve had a look at your website and I do remember your style for Instagram. I know what you mean about social media being distracting from real life. Ironic really!

  8. Heather Seamons

    I am in Australia and was initially taught silk shading by Jan Kerton. She is amazing and I always revert to her method. I enjoyed this which I found via FB and the Silk Mill

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by Heather! Jan is brilliant, and she definitely teaches in an easy to understand way I found. It’s great to know you always revert back to her way. I think I’m a combination girl!

  9. I started silk shading with Mary Corbet’s blog and have done other pieces by Tanya Berlin and Trish Burr. I just copied the silk shaded picture best I could in the end! I found your blog really interesting I had not really thought about different ways of shading. Your rose is beautiful. Thanks for all the information.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Pam! I’m glad you found it interesting- sometimes I think it’s good to stop and reflect and learn from those reflections!

  10. I don’t like regimented techniques, that’s why I don’t like cross stitch. This is sure beautiful. I think you have to do what works best for you after you understand the techniques.

    1. Thanks for your input Mary! I think this is a technique that I like more freedom in than being regimented in the approach. But it is interesting to know about the others.

  11. Dorothy Ann Tressler

    I taught myself but see now that instinctively, I was on the right track. Embroidery gives me the kind of peace and sense of achievement I have never really had.

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by Dorothy! I think there are probably many more ways of achieving silk shading – whether you have been taught or not. I’m sure you are on the right track! It’s great to hear that embroidery gives you peace and a sense of accomplishment. I find it is a great activity to settle one day mentally and it’s so good to be able to think ‘I did that!’

  12. I was initially taught Silk Shading in a private lesson at RSN. I was taught to come up between stitches. I later went on a day’s course at the RSN where the teacher said to come up in the actual stitch. I have always stitched by coming up between the stitches but am wondering whether I should in fact be coming up in the actual stitch? Could you please advise? I haven’t done any embroidery recently but would like to start a piece soon and would like to do it the proper way. I embroider birds and animals in the main.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Sue! I was taught to split the previous stitch when coming up, otherwise you will create gaps and your stitches won’t lay properly next to each other. It is odd that that is how you were initially shown how to do it at the RSN as they do stress the importance of splitting stitches. I do hope you enjoy getting back into your embroidery. Birds and animals are a lot of fun so I do hope you enjoy stitching them. If you have other questions do let me know!

      1. Thanks for that Catherine, I will certainly try to do it that way in the future. Will let you know how I get on. Sorry not to have replied sooner, I have recently sold my house and am in rented prior to moving to a different area altogether. A friend is looking after my computer and recently I have acquired an old laptop, hence only now seeing your reply.

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