That darned net

We here in the editorial staff believe in practice, practice and practice. So it comes as a surprise, that we haven’t listened to ourselves when it came to embroidered or darned net or lacis. Extant embroidered hairnets and pieces of netting look so perfect, so tiny, so daunting. But let’s start with something with bigger eyes, simpler pattern and above all, something to practice with.


The famous embroidered approximately 14th century St. Truiden hairnets from the Belgium Art Links and Tools database have some very fine work. Tiny loops, thin yarn and small darned embroideries. They make my eyes water, but there is no reason YOU shouldn’t be able to make an exact copy if you wish. In many of the pieces you can zoom really close to the pictures and see every stitch. There is also the right side and wrong side zoomable pictures of the hairnet of St.Ursula. The wrong side is particularly delicious as you can see how the work was finished and how they traveled from one embroidery to another.


There are naturally different stitches and terms that describe these embroideries. It was very popular in the late 19th century and still seems to be in, for example, Italy. After zooming in on two St.Truiden hairnets it seems that darning stitch was the most popular technique with some stem work added. But there is a difference to modern embroidery. In almost all printed or published tutorials the yarns go under and over the netting too, using it as a part of the pattern. But the medieval technique the whole work floats over the net attaching to it only on the edges. And in some cases and parts of patterns the yarns do not follow the square structure. This covering might have its roots in repairing holes in a hairnet. And because the base netting is of different colour than the embroidery it needs to stand out more. 


Pin cushion with darned netting


Let’s start with something simple first, just to warm up those darning muscles and figure out if this is a technique to spend countless hours on. This net base is approximately the same size as the biggest St.Truiden netting, 4 mm from knot to knot.


My pin cushion is made with light beige pearl cotton number 8, with a small netting needle and a 2,5 mm knitting needle. 


Start by making a beginning loop that tightens when you pull on the tail (this is the opposite to crochet). Attach this loop to your cushion with a needle. Make two netting stitches in the loop, but make sure you can still tighten the beginning loop. 

*Turn work, make one stitch in each loop and two in the last one (=increase)*. Continue working *-* until you have 22 loops (the side of the net is about 7,5 cm long). 

Work one row without decreases or increases.

**Turn work, make one stitch in each loop and stitch the last two together (=decrease)**. Continue working **-** until the net has two loops left. Knot these together without a loop.

Weave in ends.

Attach the square of netting to a frame. My finished size (7,5X7,5 cm) fits the medium filet lace frame from Gina-B Silkworks. If you don’t have this nifty gadget, you could try using an embroidery frame, picture frame, frame made from cardboard etc. The work needs to be stretched but not tight like the skin of a drum. Keep it as square as possible. 

Take 3 meters long separate piece of yarn and attach it from the middle in one of the corners. Start going round the frame (I go through the holes, even they’re not meant for it) and every loop with half the yarn. When you’ve gone around two sides, start with the other end of the yarn. You can tighten the work and knot these two ends together.

The embroidery is in extant pieces quite even and on closer look you can see that the rhythm of the darning keeps the same from piece to piece. This is the mark of an accomplished craftswoman and maybe it’s not our biggest goal on this small piece. Check out my rhythm and then go ahead and experiment on your own method. 

The embroidery is done with a thicker yarn, I used pearl cotton number 5. You could also double the yarn used on the netting, but this makes it very hard to see the darning.

This particular pattern of hearts is from a flat piece of netting from St.Truiden. As you can really zoom on the picture, I counted the threads from as many darnings as possible. The pattern is not symmetrical! It’s almost like they used more weft yarns than warp yarns, like in weaving fabric. This means that the right upright side of the heart is denser than the bottom left. I’ll follow the density in the extant net in my work but please feel free to try a more symmetric and modern version. Apropos, a smart person would have started with a symmetrical and an even simpler pattern, a square or an L-shape.

Writing a good tutorial on medieval darned nets is more complicated than it looks. I would recommend testing out this tutorial on filet lace or this one from Nordic needle on linen stitch and then coming back here to try the medieval version. As they mainly use linen stitch, which is basically just darning and still in use in lacis embroidery. But, and this is a big but: medieval linen stitch always floats on top of the net and modern linen stitch uses the net as a part of the weft and warp. Medieval embroideries are also smaller in size but denser in fabric. This small, dense floating embroidery covers the net underneath completely and this might have been exactly the effect they wanted.


Every heart is began and finished off separately. I took a very long yarn (1m) just to avoid continuing and threaded with it blunt darning needle. The tail if the yarn was woven over and under the frame stitches to keep it out of the way. If you believe my theory that the less dense yarns form the warp of the pattern, it is quite easy to figure out the order of stitches. Also keep in mind, that you are always working on the front side of the net. So when turning stitches you just weave them under either vertical or horizontal bars. Take a look at the pictures below:

  1. Start at the upper left corner and lay the 4 warp yarns for three upright squares. Some attach to vertical bars and some to horizontal bars of the net.
  2. Circle the right corner. Weave 1 weft yarn for the one square. Use an over-under rhythm that fits the warp yarns. 
  3. Weave and lay the 7 weft yarns for five bottom squares. Use an over-under rhythm that fits the previous weaving.
  4. Circle the bottom right corner, weave and lay the 5 warp yarns for five upright squares. Use an over-under rhythm that fits the previous weaving. Lay 1 warp yarn for the 1 square, circle the upper corner. 
  5. Weave and lay the 4 weft yarns for three upper squares. Use an over-under rhythm that fits the previous weaving.
  6. Weave 8 weft yarns for the right side 2X2 middle squares. Use an over-under rhythm that fits the previous weaving.
  7. Circle the bottom inner corner. Weave 4 warp yarns for the bottom 2X2 middle squares. Use an over-under rhythm that fits the previous weaving.
  8. Finish the embroidery by circling the beginning corner and weaving the ends to the underside.

Take care that the weaving pattern stays neat and layed yarns quite loose, they tighten quite a lot during the darning. If you miss a vertical bar, mess up the weaving rhythm or paint yourself to a corner, just work an extra warp or weft or travel the yarn to a better place on the underside. It took me four tries to get this rhythm working, but I bet there are at least four more rhythms to use. Practice and experiment.


The finished embroidered net was unraveled from the frame and I couldn’t help trying out how the embroidered net stretches. The results for hairnets is truly promising as it tends to settle to just the right direction. The net, now again squared, was sewn on a piece on cotton. Then the sides were covered with fingerloop braiding, just for fun. The whole piece was lined from the right side with small stitches and stuffed with my collected, clean hair.


And now onto an embroidered hairnet or the Grail as I like to call it!


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