Cross-cultural Cross-Stitching

Gerda Bengtsson’s books were originally published in Danish, but her work has been legally translated, repackaged, and valued all over the world.

Here’s an Etsy listing for a digital version of a Japanese-language book of her patterns. Without checking the designs one by one, I don’t know if this is a direct translation of one of her books, or a compilation of designs from various works.

22 Floral cross stitchcross stitch bookdigital cross stitch image 0

What I do know is that it is usually illegal to sell unauthorized digital versions of books that are still under copyright. You can see on the page customers’ comments about other Gerda Bengtsson digital books sold by this vendor. There are many, many Japanese needlework books offered for sale as cheap digital versions on Etsy. Unfortunately, Etsy will only take down such pirate listings if the owner of the copyright does the complaining.

One living needle artist who is no doubt losing a lot of income due to piracy like this is Kazuko Aoki who, in my opinion, is probably the best living designer working in Gerda Bengtsson’s style. She deserves a post of her own, which you can look forward to at a future date.

All roads lead to Gerda! But they should do so legally.

Gerda’s Rabbit

Whenever Gerda told the story about how she started designing needlework, she always mentioned how she was struck by the plants and animals of the Unicorn Tapestries that she saw at the Musée de Cluny in Paris.  One of her first designs, at the request of the Handcrafts Guild,  was a little rabbit based on one in the tapestries.

gerda original rabbitI recently received a book on Gerda’s stitchery, one I had ordered from Japan.  It’s in Japanese, but the contents are pretty clear.  One of the illustrations is a photo of that humble little pattern, with the areas to be stitched colored by watercolors.  If you look closely, you can see the small numerals which indicate what thread was to be used for each area.

gerda stitched rabbitNext to this illustration is one of the design all stitched up.  At this point, Gerda’s designs were being completely stitched, background and all.  It would not be until later that she would decide that one strand of flower thread on loosely-woven linen would give the lighter, more delicate effect that best suited plants.

The tapestries Gerda saw in Paris were made in Flanders of wool and silk, about 1511.  The set includes one tapestry for each of the five senses plus a larger one entitled À Mon Seul Désir.

Recently, I had a chance to see the equally famous set of unicorn tapestries, The Unicorn Hunt, which hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters in New York City.   The set of seven (in varying sizes, one represented only by two fragments) was woven of wool, silk, and gold sometime between 1495 and 1500, most likely in Brussels.

Though the Cluny tapestries have red backgrounds and the Hunt tapestries have dark backgrounds, and the Hunt series is much more detailed, the two sets share some strong design similarities, most notably the gorgeous millefleur back- grounds.  Seeing the Hunt tapestries in person was a magical experience, especially in such a beautiful, castle-like setting.  I can only imagine that I shared the same enchantment Gerda felt.  It was a fresh breath of inspiration.

I also found, to my delight, a little rabbit among the blossoms of the Hunt tapestries.  I think he must be a cousin of the one Gerda saw.

cloister rabbit



So Where is the Stitching Already?

So where are the embroidered plants already? What’s the hold-up?

Several things are making this a long, slow project rather than a jump-right-in project.

First is a lack of time.  After work there is dinner and housework (ha!) and cats and friends and books.  There’s another blog to work on, and a novel going out in installments, and a herbarium database to improve.  On the weekends, there are errands to run and grass to mow and, and, and…

Then there is the vicious cycle of where to start.  I have an idea of what plants I’d like to include, but the list is far longer than a single design could reasonably include.  I need to actually sit down and sort them into groups.  Lists.  I am good at lists.

I have also needed to study up on how Gerda made her designs—and design as in not just how the plants are drawn or laid out on a chart, but the actual method.  Did she draw on graph paper?  Did she–as some cross stitch designers have been known to do — paint on needlework fabric and then transcribe the colored areas, thread by thread?  Where did she start?

Her method is worthy of a post all to itself, and there will be one, but I now know the bones of how Gerda worked.  The answer, in her own words, is in a book I ordered that has taken forever to arrive.


This book is a bit of a sampler.  It includes material that can be found—in English! — in the common Book of Danish Stitchery, along with examples of her different subjects, and a nice selection of charts.

A painter, Gerda always started with a drawing or painting of a plant.  She traced that, adjusting bits and pieces here and there to make the design more clear.  She then placed graph paper over the tracing, fitting the lines of the squares to the drawing.  She then removed the drawing from beneath the graph paper and looked at her charted shapes.  Were the curves graceful?  Could something be better if it were moved over a stitch or two?


In the image to the right, she says that her effort B and C is an example of something she was not happy with.  In D and E, she adjusted how the curves broke against the boxes. The resulting shape is much more natural.

violetchart Once the shapes were right, she could choose the colors and create the chart.  This is one for a little tri-colored violet, part of a larger design.  The different symbols tell the stitcher what color each stitch should be.

Now, take a good look at that “tiny” little violet.  It is about one hundred and twenty-five stitches tall!  That is not a small design.  Sure, Gerda designed a lot of very simple designs that were much smaller, but to get the detail that lets one identify the plants to species, there have to be more stitches.  Sometimes many more.  Her very realistic, life-sized designs for some individual plants were more than a meter tall, worked multiple stitches to the centimeter.

And that is really what is holding me up.  I need to decide on size.  The first piece I want to do will be one that features a row of about twenty plants, something similar to the design from which the cover illustration of that book up there was taken.   I actually own a kit of that entire design, and the tallest plants are about 150 stitches tall.  There is a lot of stitching, even in the bits that look simple.  That is a reasonable size, though I might have to increase that to capture enough detail in the smaller plants.  Just how nuts do I want to go?  Do I want these plants life-size?  Bigger?  If I get all the detail I want in the tiny plants, how large does that make the tall ones?  How big is too big?

And then there is the whole complication of fabric.  With charted designs, the size of the finished product depends upon the fabric used–something stitched on a fabric with more stitches to the inch or centimeter or inch is going to be smaller than the same design stitched on coarser fabric.  I need to decide what fabric I want to use.  I have an entire yard  (about 36″ x 56″) of cream-colored, 16-stitches-to-the-inch evenweave coming that has been on backorder since the Pleistocene.  When it arrives, if that’s what I want to use, I’ll have to figure out how much of it I want to use and that will tell me how tall the tallest plants can be.

I think I am going to have to stop spinning my mental wheels, make myself some 11″ x 17″ inch graph paper with 1 mm squares, sketch a few designs, and just play around.  Right now, while the whole project is still in my head, it is  perfect.  The minute I actually start something, that’s when it gets real.  And messy.

And, I suppose, worth doing.