Fish scale embroidery is a technique that was popular in nineteenth century Britain. The fish scales usually came from carp, goldfish or perch, as their scales were regarded as the most iridescent. Fish scale embroidery was worked on silk, satin or velvet ground cloth and the scales were used to imitate flower petals, bird feathers and butterfly wings.
The scales were prepared by scraping them from the fish, steeping them in cold water until they were soft and pliable, and then two small holes were pierced with a needle near the base of each scale.
The scales were sometimes coloured with a mixture of varnish and powdered colour. Once ready the scales were arranged in an overlapping pattern and then sewn down. Stems, veins, tendrils and other fine details were worked in stem stitch using a fine chenille thread, gold thread or a filoselle. The centre of the flowers was often filled with French knots worked in silk or with beads, pearls or spangles. This type of embroidery was only suitable for places where it would not come into contact with friction.
Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, April 1886 have instructions on how to make a fish scale embroidered NEEDLEWORK BOOK
Materials — A strip of perforated cardboard, nine inches long and four and a half inches wide; a piece of red silk ribbon of the same dimensions; two and a half yards of red ribbon, half an inch wide; red sewing-silk; white flannel; fish-scales.
Instructions: This needle-book is composed of two stars, covered with small fish-scales and bound round with a quilling of ribbon. Fig. 1 shows the pattern in full size. Each star is cut out of a piece of perforated card-board 4 ½ inches square, over which a circle is traced measuring 4 ¼ inches across.
Now divide the circle into eight notches ¾ inches deep, and cut them out; cover both the star-shaped pieces with fish-scales, which should previously have been well washed in hot salt water and carefully wiped and dried.
Victorian crafts The needle, threaded with red silk, is inserted in the lower part of the scales to fasten them on to the cardboard as seen in Fig. 2, which gives a part of the pattern during the process of working. The indented edge of the scales should be placed upwards, and they should overlap each other. Cover in this way the eight notches first, and then the rest of the stars, arranging the scales in regular circles, and only leave a small space in the center, in which place a rosette of red ribbon.
Next line both the pieces of cardboard with the red ribbon 4 ½ inches wide, and on the side of the lining sew on a quilling of the narrow ribbon so as to let it show a little beyond the edge on the right side.
Place two pieces of fine white flannel inside the pieces of cardboard for holding the needles; cut them out of the same shape, but rather small. Join both sides of the cover by sewing a small piece of ribbon over one notch of each star, forming a sort of hinge; then sew a piece of ribbon, six inches long, to two notches on the opposite side, which serve to fasten the needle-book by a bow.
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