This style of embroidery was a precursor to the still popular Swedish Weaving done on monk’s cloth, which today is primarily used for afghans. Those designs are mostly geometric bands although sometimes simple motifs or letters are seen.
Huckaback embroidery is different in that the design is stamped (or drawn) on the fabric and a simple darning stitch is used to fill in the different areas. The embroidery is completed by going over elements with an outline or stem stitch to define the shapes. It is an easy embroidery method that can provide impressive results.
Huckaback embroidery is older than many think; popular in the 1940’s, the New York Times ran an article about the “revival” of huck embroidery in 1909. Brainerd and Armstrong’s 1908 Embroidery Lessons book shows several beautiful doilies using this technique. Alas, they all seem to be 22 inches across and I have yet to locate a source for huck fabric in that width. (14-count Aida cloth comes in wider pieces though, and seems to be the modern equivalent to Java Cloth.)
The Encyclopedia of Needlework (2nd Edition) published in 1887 calls it “Darned Embroidery” and states the origin of the style as Oriental and that it was done in Europe in the sixteenth century, as well as in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The older forms show the design outlined while the background is filled in with darning stitch - a method shown in the DMC booklet titled “Colbert Embroidery”. Colbert embroidery seems to be the mother of the technique - the backgrounds are more complicated then simple lines of darning stitch, but the over all look of the finished embroidery is very similar.
Almost any embroidery design can be used as long as it provides large, open spaces. Fine detail and intricate shapes will be lost. Art Deco and Art Nouveau styles work especially well. When choosing a design look for simple lines and bold shapes, almost a coloring book style.
Huckaback fabric or huck toweling is still sold by the yard and can be found with the by-the-yard bolts of monk’s cloth and cross stitch fabric and comes in 16 inch widths. You can also find huck surgical towels with an internet search. They seem to be mostly bright blue, with some other bright colors like yellow, red and green. They are mostly sold in bulk packages, so despite the small per towel cost, if you don’t need 100 of them, buying fabric and making your own towels may be a better option. Huck is 100% cotton so can be dyed any color you want. By the time you hem the edges and pre-wash it you’re left with a width of about 13 inches for your embroidery. The float count on the wrong side stays the same (10 floats per inch) both before and after washing. Most of the shrinkage occurs in the length; a 24 inch piece was about 22” after washing.
For larger projects Aida cross stitch fabric can be used and is also sold by the yard from bolts in 30 inch widths. Bolts of Aida will mostly be 14-count, but higher stitch counts can occasionally be found. And I think it would be interesting to see what could be done on monk’s cloth. Again, both Aida and monk’s cloth are 100% cotton so will dye well.
If huckaback is used note that you will be working on the wrong side of the fabric. If you feel the fabric between your fingers one side will feel smoother than the other - that is the side you will be embroidering on. The thread floats on this side are in pairs. There are also floats on the right side of the fabric, but as single instead of double threads.
You definitely want to use a tapestry needle. It slides easily under the floats without catching and is much less frustrating than trying to work with a regular sharp or crewel embroidery needle. You do still need a sharp embroidery needle for working the outlining. The very thing that makes a tapestry needle great for doing the darning makes it annoying to use for the outlining.
The older embroideries used silk threads, but six-strand embroidery floss is a much more economical alternative today. Use 2 or 3 strands of embroidery floss, depending on the fabric’s stitch count and your own preference. I liked 2 strands on the huckaback for both the darning and the outlining.
Whether to outline first or darn first is probably up to individual preference. I have seen instructions for both. Although if you outline first you will have an easier time finishing off threads as there will be stitches on the back to bury the ends in. The darning stitch is worked just on the surface of the fabric, so to end a thread you will need to bury it in the floats on the other side.
For my project I chose to darn the background and have the design itself outlined. I chose a design from DMC’s Colbert Embroidery book. Since it was originally intended to be a repeating band I fussed with it a bit in photoshop to end it at the sides. Then I printed the design out and taped it to a window with the fabric lined up and taped over it. I traced the whole thing onto the fabric using a fine tip pen. I tried pencil, but the fabric has too much texture to give a fine line and I planned for my outlining threads to completely cover the pattern markings.
I did not pre-wash the fabric as this project will never be thrown in the washer...and I was in a hurry to get started! I do recommend pre-washing your fabric if you intend to put it into the washer and dryer in the future. DMC embroidery floss is now colorfast and huckaback was originally intended as towel fabric. Some of you may remember the old towels in public restrooms - a big loop of fabric that you pulled around to a dry spot? That was huckaback. Sturdy stuff and well able to hold up to modern washers and dryers. For towels the general practice is to hem the sides and ends before washing. Iron the fabric when it comes out of the dryer and you’re ready to go. Do the same for aida cloth for larger doilies.
I started with the darning and buried the ends of threads by wrapping them around the floats on the other side. I tried to avoid any long jumps from one section to another on the back. When I started I wasn’t sure what it was eventually going to be; a pillow, a table runner or what. I’m currently thinking it will be an inset in a tea tray, but it may end up simply framed as art. Accordingly, where I can, I start a new thread or end a working one by running off the edges. Those edges will be turned under during the framing or mounting process.
I’m working on pattern pdfs for reproductions of the 1908 Brainerd and Armstrong doilies pictured above for for my Etsy shop for those of you who want to try their hand at this. And I made myself a bunch of huck towels to develop patterns for letters and motifs since geometric bands seem to be pretty well covered by Swedish Weaving, so look for those soon too.