Tambour Lace: Lesson 1

There has been enough interest in my new Tambour project, that I thought I would start putting up some how-tos! It’s not the sort of thing that I can do all in one go, so I will be putting up several lessons over the course of the next few weeks and months.

I will be focusing on lace in these lessons, since that is how I primarily use tambour at the moment. I may expand this in the future as I work on other projects, but all the techniques you see here are basically the same for work on woven fabrics.

A bit of history: Tambour is a form of embellishment that originated in or around India many hundreds of years ago, and eventually spread to Europe in about the mid-1700s as tambour embroidered textiles became popular there. While at first tambour-work was all imported, by the late 18th century it was a popular pastime for wealthy women, and became especially beloved as an embellishment for the diaphanous dresses of the 1790s and early 1800s. Tambour lace remained very popular until sometime around the 1840s, when machine-made lace really began to take over.

For a more detailed look at the history of tambour in Europe, check out this post by Two Nerdy History Girls.

Today, I am going to walk you through three basic steps:

  1. Preparing your materials and starting the thread.
  2. The basic tambour stitch.
  3. Finishing the thread at the end.

What you will need:

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  • A free-standing embroidery frame/hoop. Round ones are usually seen in images of women working tambour at home, while large rectangular frames are used by professionals working on entire garment pieces. Your frame can be floor, table, or lap sitting, but must leave you free to use both hands.
  • A tambour hook/tambour needle–these come in a range of sizes depending on your fabric and thread. I believe the one I’m using in this tutorial is a #90, but to be honest I put it in the holder a long time ago, and I’m not completely sure! You can get varieties both with or without a latch. I prefer without, but feel free to experiment if you find that you have trouble holding onto the thread without one!
  • A hook holder–this is the wooden handle that holds your hook while you work.
  • Fabric–I generally work lace on cotton bobbinet, but you can also try your hand at silk net, muslin, linen, silk chiffon, or any number of other fabrics. I would not recommend trying to work tambour on tulle from your basic fabric store. This isn’t one of those times when starting with cheap and working up to the nice stuff is helpful. Basic synthetic tulle is too flimsy, and tends to catch on the hook, and you will end up pulling all your hair out before you go far. Please don’t decide you hate tambour because of an experience with synthetic tulle!
  • Thread–any non-divisible thread will do (i.e. no embroidery floss). I am using DMC Cordonnet Special in size 70. Embroidery threads like this are nice because they have a lovely finish, and they work up into crisp, substantial stitches. If I want something very fine to fill in motifs, I use plain Gütermann 100% cotton sewing thread.
  • Scissors
  • A needle
  • A pin
  • A pair of pliers can also come in handy, but are optional.

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I like to shop in the Lacis Museum online store for my tools. You can find both a lap frame like the one pictured in this tutorial, and a table-standing tambour frame on this page. You can find hooks and holders here. You can find all of these things other places by googling the items, but they all tend to be the same products sold through different retailers.

I buy my bobbinet from several different retailers including Renaissance Fabrics, Mary Not Martha, and Originals by Kay.

Step 1: Prepare your materials.

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Insert your hook into your hook holder and tighten the screw. Keep the hook facing in the same direction as the screw so that you always know which way the hook is facing without needing to look at the hook itself. This is VERY important. It is easiest to manipulate the hook if you keep it quite short. Mine is coming out of the holder about 3/4″.

You will want to transfer your design to the fabric before you place it in the hoop. Since I am just demonstrating the stitch at this point, I did not draw a design, but there will be upcoming tutorials in following a design where I will discuss it in more detail. I use a blue water-soluble fabric marker to mark designs if I will not be demonstrating to the public in period clothes while I’m working on them. (Always test your marker on a swatch of fabric first to make sure it comes out). Otherwise, I draw it in pencil, which generally rubs away enough to be un-noticable by the time the project is finished, or I baste over the design in very fine white thread that will be hidden by the work when finished.

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Put your fabric into your hoop. Tighten the screw enough to hold things still, then pull the fabric as taut as you can and tighten the hoop more. Do this several times, until the fabric is as taut as you can get it, and the hoop screw will not tighten any further. I use a pair of pliers at the end to make sure I get it as tight as possible. The word ‘tambour’ means drum, and this art is so called because the fabric needs to be as tight as a drum head. This helps keep the stitches from puckering once the fabric is released from the hoop.

Step 2: Secure your thread.

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Place a pin in the underside of your fabric, off to the side, several inches from where you intend to begin your embroidery.

On the underside of the fabric, wrap the end of your thread several times around the pin until it feel secure. Leave the working end of the thread connected to the spool. If all goes well in a piece of tambour-work, you will not need to cut the thread at all until the end.

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Step 3: The Basic Stitch

I suggest that you read through this entire step a couple of times before trying it yourself. Having all of the information in your head before you begin will help avoid confusion.

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With your non-dominant hand, hold the thread beneath the fabric. With your dominant hand, insert your hook through the fabric. The hook itself should be facing in the direction you intend to move. The handle should be approximately perpendicular to your fabric.
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Wrap the thread around the hook, rotate it so that the hook faces AWAY from the direction you want your line of stitches to go (in this case the hook is facing directly towards the camera, and I intend to stitch along the line directly away from the camera), and pull up a loop of thread.
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Rotate the hook so that it once again faces in the direction you want to travel. This ensures that the thread stays securely in the hook while you move to the next stitch.
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Insert the hook into the next net cell along the line you are embroidering. This first real stitch will be the trickiest, so don’t worry if you drop it and have to start over a few times.
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Rotate the hook back away from your line of travel as you wrap the thread around it so that the thread catches in the hook as you draw it back up.
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Draw the hook back up, bringing the new thread wrap up and through the first loop you created. I cannot stress enough that the hook MUST be facing away from your line of travel, towards the stitch you’ve already made when this happens. This allows the hook to travel through the point of the chain, rather than catching on the loop of the thread. You can also facilitate the hook coming through the fabric by putting a slight pressure on the holder in the direction of travel, so that the back of the hook is pressing gently against the net. This will give the hook as much room as possible to clear the fabric without catching.
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Continue to follow these steps to create the signature tambour chain stitch. a. Rotate the hook to face where you want to go. b. Insert the hook into the fabric. c. Wrap the thread and rotate the hook back towards the existing stitches. d. Pull the new thread loop up through the fabric and the last thread loop.

You can see in the video that I both wrap the thread and rotate the hook clockwise. Doing both in the same direction makes it easier to catch the thread in the hook. I then “unrotate” the hook counterclockwise above the fabric, so that it untwists the thread loop as I move to the next stitch.

Don’t worry too much if you drop the thread, or accidentally take your hook out of the loop. Simply put it back through the loop, and the next cell, and continue. Do be careful, though, if you pull on the working thread while the hook is not through the last loop, the entire work can unravel! This is great if you realize you made a mistake in the design and want to go back to fix it–you can simply pull the thread until the mistake is gone, reinsert your hook into the free loop, and carry on as if nothing happened. But it’s not so great if you just got the hang of things and accidentally pulled out all of the beautiful stitches you just painstakingly chained together!

Once you’ve gotten the hang of how to make the stitch, the most important thing to focus on is tension. If you don’t hold the thread taut enough in your off hand while you embroider, the stitches will be loose and sloppy once the hoop tension is released. If you hold it too tightly, it pull the stitches too tight, the fabric will pucker. Focus on letting the thread glide lightly between your thumb and finger below the fabric. Think of the gentle, flexible tension you feel when pulling out the bobbin thread on a sewing machine.

Step 4: Finish your thread.

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When your design is finished, pull the last loop out long. This helps keep the work from unraveling while you turn the hoop and cut the working thread.
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Lift your hoop and snip the working thread so that you have enough of a tail to thread onto a needle.
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Flip your hoop back down so that the top side of the work is facing you, and pull your long loop so that the end of the cut thread comes up through to the top of the fabric. You will now have a thread end coming up from the middle of your final stitch.
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Insert your hook up from the bottom of the fabric in the same cell as your final stitch, but NOT through the stitch itself.
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Wrap your thread end around the hook.
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And pull the thread end back down to the wrong side of the work. This may not seem like much, but it is all it takes to keep the stitches from unraveling.

Step 5: Weave in your ends.

I cannot stress this enough: do this as you go! How do I know this? Because I regularly leave my ends until I finish a project because weaving in ends is BOOOOOORING and I always want to put if off. But believe you me, weaving in ends is about 10,000 times more boring if you leave twenty or more of them until the end of a project and you have to spend hours weaving all of them in at once. Learn from my mistakes. Much better to do it as you go. Luckily, if you are good at plotting out a path for your design, you should be able to do a single tambour motif, or possibly more with only two ends to your thread. In later tutorials, I will show you how to skip from place to place in your design without needing to cut the thread, and other fun time-saving tricks.\

And now: weaving in ends.

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Thread one of your trailing ends onto a sewing needle.
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The back of your work should look basically like a row of small back stitches or machine stitches. Insert the needle through one of these stitches and pull through.
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Insert the needle through the next “back-stitch” and pull through. Continue this for at least an inch or two, or until you feel comfortable that the thread is very secure. Since this line is very short, I only did about a half inch to show. Make sure that you do not pull these stitches too tight, or you will pucker your chain stitch on the right side! You can also use your hook to weave the ends through, but I find it goes faster with a needle.

Do the same with any other loose ends, and trim any excess thread.

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The work from the back.
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The chain stitch from the front.

You can lean more in Lesson 2, which covers following a simple pattern, including advice on transferring your pattern, deciding how to work through it, and going around curves!

Keep your eye out for more tambour tutorials coming soon, and if you have any special requests or questions, please feel free to ask!

6 thoughts on “Tambour Lace: Lesson 1

  1. Thank you for so many pictures! In upcoming tutorials, could you detail how to turn corners and fill in areas? I see lots of extant examples with the tambour chain used to completely fill in a flower petal, etc., and can’t figure out how to turn the cain stitch line tightly enough to do the fill work.

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  2. I wanted to thank you for these tutorials!! I love these techniques and have no way of going to a teacher for learning them, so I really appreciate you sharing your knowledge!! Thank you so much!! ❤

    Like

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