Silk shading at the RSN - and colours!

RSN Certificate Silk Shading – The Beginnings

I’ve started my third module of the Certificate at the RSN. For my silk shading piece I am working a wild, bright pink rose, on black silk. There’s a lot of preparation work to complete before placing the first stitch. Today we will go through what that preparation is, and I’ll show you the first few stitches placed!

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The Silk Shading Module

For the Certificate course, your silk shading piece needs to be ‘flora based’ – a flower, a vegetable or a fruit. It also needs to contain a stem and a ‘turnover’.

Finding design inspiration

I really should have considered this a bit earlier than I did, as I had no photos at all that were suitable when I first started piecing together this design, way back before the summer holidays. I went on a few ‘photo’ taking days just as the summer term was ending in the hope of capturing something appropriate. So many photos of so many flowers! But as this was before the flowers had really ‘sprung’, I was a little bit limited in what I could find.

Whilst some of my photos were of nice flowers, were pretty colours, and in most cases had some form of a ‘turnover’, most of them had too many petals to make it a suitable image for this project.

The lucky wild rose!

By some chance of luck, I took a few photos of some wild roses as I was leaving Hampton Court one day, and they were much more suitable! Less petals, and enough of a turnover in the image. Although as you will see, I haven’t made life easy for myself, as there are rain drops on the petals that will need to be recreated in stitch.

And so, with any amount of luck, this is what I’ll be attempting to create over the coming weeks!

Photo taken of flower for design basis for silk shading piece at RSN


Preparation ahead of stitching

As I have mentioned before, preparation before stitching is an important element of what we are taught as part of the Certificate. And whilst the Jacobean piece, and the canvasworkpiece had preparation such as colour and stitch thought, this piece’s preparation is a little bit different. We are really encouraged to learn a great deal about, and know our subject, very well.

To ‘get to know’ your image, you make several copies of your traced design.

Colour diagrams

On one of these copies, you colour the image in coloured pencils. You pay particular attention to the shading, where it is lighter, where it is darker. Is it an abrupt, or a gentle change of colour? How many shades in an area are there? I’ve done this once, but I’ve now made a couple of copies again, as I would like to re-do this exercise. You also realise just how many colours are actually in your image when you do this!

Another of these copies is used to shade your image in black and white. I had never even considered this before! But it is very helpful in understanding the shading of your image. Once completed, the tutors recommend you take a black and white copy of your image to compare. A very interesting exercise!

Stitch order and direction

A further copy is used to work out your stitch order. Unlike canvaswork,  where you work from the foreground to the background, silk shading is worked from the back to the front. So if a petal is in front of another petal, you stitch the back petal first. And whilst starting with a leaf is a good idea whilst you get the hang of the technique, if the leaf is on top of a petal, you stitch the leaf after you have worked the petal. Included in the order of work are the turnovers. So a very detailed plan emerges!

And lastly, you make a copy to use to mark the stitch direction lines.  I thought this would be quite simple and straight forward with just a few lines to get the general idea. But it is actually a very detailed diagram with a lot of your stitches. Not quite a line per stitch, but definitely a large number of lines!

Preparation steps before recreating photo in silk shading - shading diagrams
Stitch direction diagram to assist stitching in RSN silk shading piece



Now the preparation was completed, it was time to choose the colours that will be used to stitch the design. Once you’ve coloured in the design you get an idea for just how many colours you will need. And whilst some of the colours might not be used terribly extensively (as in only a few stitches!), they are all needed to give that realistic impression.

Despite the name of the technique being ‘silk shading’, it is actually worked in stranded cottons by DMC and Anchor. You can stitch silk shading pieces in silk threads, however the sheen of silk apparently makes it that little bit more difficult. The RSN also carries the full range of both Anchor and DMC threads, making choosing your colours a lot easier.

A wide variety of threads is required to recreate a photo in needle and thread


Transferring the design

The design is transferred to the silk in the same way we learnt for the Jacobean piece – the prick and pounce method. I actually don’t mind this as a technique until it comes to painting it on, and then I seem to get a very shaky, clumsy hand! My lines are probably too thick, but they are coverable which is the main thing. I am going to have to get better at this part! Although unless it’s an RSN piece, I think I would opt for a pencil or pen rather than paint!

Preparing the fabric

Before we start to stitch, I needed to do one more thing. Using a black thread (so it’s the same colour as by background), put in some tiny stab stitches through each element – each petal and leaf. This is to stop the background calico and top silk from ‘slipping’ from each other, and to help keep the silk in place. Though how it could move when it is under so much tension on the frame I don’t know!

Time to stitch!

And at last, it is time to start stitching!

The first step is to put in a tiny split stitch around your edges, just on the outside of the design line so you can be sure you will cover the paint. The smaller and tighter the stitches here the better – mine are about two millimetres long. Because this is such a tough stitch on the thread, I seem to be frequently snapping the thread which is a little annoying. I’m going to have to remember to keep my thread quite short in the future to avoid this.

The stem

The first part I stitched was the stem. I don’t really have much of a stem on this flower, so I’m hoping it constitutes as a stem for the assessment. At first look at the picture, you really don’t see very many different colours. But when you look closely, you can see a lot of different colours are needed to get the different shades and shadows.

One thing I am quite surprised at is just how long each individual stitch is. It really isn’t ‘long and short’ stitch, but ‘long and longer’, with each stitch being around one centimetre long.

Starting the leaves

I actually have two ‘versions’ of this piece – the ‘real’ one, and a practice one. In photos you can distinguish between the two with the real version being on black silk, and the practice version being on the browny colour. Hopefully the stitching will also be better on the real version!


Over summer, I made a couple off attempts at the leaf on my practice version without a great deal of success. The greens I initially chose weren’t ‘right’, which didn’t help, as did not having a comprehensive enough stitch diagram. But, it has helped with me getting the hang of angling the needle over the edge of the split stitch line to get that smooth edge. This was something I really struggled with on the frame, and is going to take some getting used to, but I now have a ‘feel’ for how the needle should be entering the fabric.

The real thing!

With my ‘right’ colours, I have made an attempt on the small, not really there leaf. One thing that is difficult with these non-whole leaves is the angle and finishing the leaf on an edge that in reality isn’t there.  Getting the angle right, and finishing the line off is quite difficult when you don’t have a point to work towards!

Practising silk shading for RSN work
Stem and first leaf completed for silk shading module at RSN


So at length, I’ve finally shown you my next RSN piece! I think this is a technique that is going to take a bit of time to get the hang of. But I’m hoping that with a bit of practice I will understand what I’m doing, and get into the ‘flow’ of the piece, as I do think it is something that is going to be ‘rhythm’ based. Just with the bit of stitching I’ve done over the last couple of days I can feel I’m starting to get the hang of it more.

I’m hoping to keep this project moving along reasonably quickly, as I have been told this is a technique where you should minimise the breaks you take whilst completing each piece. This is to ensure there is more consistency with your stitching. We will wait and see on that one though – at the rate at which I’m ‘backwards stitching’, this project will take decades!

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36 thoughts on “RSN Certificate Silk Shading – The Beginnings”

  1. Fascinating reading about all the planning involved, I’ve started using an acid free silver gel pen as a marker, it’s a fine line and just a bit of twinkle if anything shows afterwards!! You’ve made a great start with your stem and leaf, looking forward to seeing this one develop!

    1. Great idea about the sparkly pen! Not something I’ll be able to use on any RSN piece, but one for the memory banks! I’m looking forward to learning this technique and improving my skills, though I think there may be some frustrating moments still to come with it.

  2. Thank you for sharing such detail again. I didn’t understand the painting on the silk. And I had no idea the you attached silk to a backing with stitches. Very interesting and gives me the chance to think about possible photos for the future. Is there a particular type of silk you use?

    1. Hi Carol. Painting on the silk is part of the design transfer stage. It is quite a traditional method, that involves firstly ‘pricking’ your design which you have traced onto tracing paper, then rubbing pounce (a bit like charcoal) through those holes, and finally, joining the dots together with the paint, which gives you a clear design on your fabric. You then stitch over these paint lines so no lines show.
      I always use a backing fabric with silk fabric, as it gives it a bit more stability, and for the paler colours, it means you don’t have to worry about the threads showing through. I just didn’t know you should put in the tiny stitches first to keep everything together! The backing fabric is s tightly woven calico. The silk is a silk dupion, though you could use any silk.
      Hope that helps!

  3. I use a quilter’s propelling pencil instead of paint. It works well and is mostly removable, although just as with the paint it is better to cover it!

    I’m full of admiration for your tackling silk shading!

    1. That’s a great idea! I’ll remember that for my non RSN pieces.
      I’m quite determined to enjoy this module, so let’s hope it stays that way!

  4. Thanks for sharing your process. I learned a few good tips on preparing designs 🙂 I agree with the RSN, don’t take too many breaks between sessions. Just push through it. This type of stitching always gives me a headache but I really want to master it. It’s such an impressive technique once finished.

    1. I’m glad you got some tips Dima! This is a technique I too really want to master and I’m quite keen to make some inroads with it. I’ve also discovered today I have almost two weeks annual leave to take before the end of the year – I’ve got plans for that time already!

  5. This is going to be a beautiful piece, Catherine! Your adventures with RSN have been so enlightening and inspirational. Isn’t it amazing what can be done with a needle and thread?!

  6. I wish you all the best in your shading efforts! It looks like you’ve made a good start and I’m confident you’ll do fine.

    Once you become comfortable with the technique I encourage you to try it with silk thread like Au Ver a Soie Soie d’Alger. I have done shading with spun and filament silks along with lots of cotton! Much as I love shading with cotton, spun silk, like Soie d’Alger, provides a depth and life to a piece that cotton can’t match. Also, spun silk is quite easy to stitch with.

    There’s an example of a Trish Burr rose stitched in silk here:

    1. Thanks for your encouragement!
      I would love to stitch a silk shaded piece in Au ver a Soie. Their thread is truly beautiful. You have done a lovely job on your rose. The silk gives such a beautiful dimension and sheen to your work.
      Thanks so much for stopping by!

  7. Really enjoyed reading your post Catherine! I will definitely keep it for future reference for when I start my silk-shading module so I know what to expect. Can’t wait to see your project for real in just over three weeks time!

    1. I’m glad it was useful for you, and I hope I can provide a bit more useful knowledge for you! I’m looking forward to meeting you in person soon. Hopefully with a more completed flower.

  8. This is the one technique, apart from goldwork, that I really wanted to try – and the reason I decided to do the RSN course. It has been really interesting to read your progress and the amount of work that needs to be considered before you start to stitch. Look forward to watching your progress. Loving the colours!

    1. Yes, this is one technique which I really wanted to do. I love the realistic images that are created. I’m sure the preparation will pay off!

  9. What a stunning picture you took of that rose. A couple of years ago, I started a silk shading piece with real silk. It is still in progress as I find that I need long stretches of time to work on ‘serious’ embroidery. What I did notice however, is that you see gaps between your stitches in a certain direction. No matter how closely you try to pack your stitches. It seems that stranded cotton is just that bit more fluffy and thus easier for beginners. Good luck with your stitching!

    1. Thanks for that information Jessica! I have always ‘assumed’ that silk shading would use silk threads. But the more I hear about it, the more I’m thinking not stitching in silk is a good idea!

  10. Beautiful, Catherine! Thank you for sharing your process and I am looking forward to following your progress. I do tonal drawings of my botanic art, and find them such a helpful guide, as well as helping to understand the structure of the subject. I think you will find it invaluable when you are doing your stitching.

  11. Great post Catherine – thanks very much for sharing in so much detail – very useful info, I always learn so much from your posts. I just know this piece is going to be stunning when you’re finished – really looking forward to seeing your progress with it

  12. It’s going to be fascinating watch this piece as it progresses. Such a lot of prep work has gone in to it. I do love that wild rose!

    Thanks so much for linking up to last week’s Stitchery Link Party. Aloha hugs!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Daisy! It is just a water colour paint that is watered down to a thin consistency. It shouldn’t be as terrifying as it is!

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