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Cutwork is one of the sexiest vintage details out there. It’s also the brainchild of nuns. Go figure.

A forerunner of needle madee lace, cutwork is an umbrella term that is used for a number of different techniques – Broidery Anglaise, Renaissancee Embroidery, Richelieu and Venetian Embroidery. They all pretty much result in a similar effect, that is, a cut-out shape in linen or some other tightly woven
fabric where the raw edges are bound by satin stitches, buttonhole stitches or, in the case of Richelieu, a modified buttonhole stitch.

The basic idea behind each is also the same: work the design in stitches, then cut out the cutouts without cutting into the stitches. Cutwork originally appeared in sacramental robes and grave cloths of saints as early as the 12th century but the nuns’ know-how was kept a secret from laypeople until the 15th century when upper class ladies started incorporating the technique into their linens and altar cloths. Today, it’s used for spicing up everything from adorable baby christening gowns to racy evening blouses.

Though it looks really tricky, cutwork isn’t all that difficult to do. Though you can use a satin stitch on your zigzag machine to complete the outlines or even go nuts with your computerized embroidery machine, the directions below are for doing it the old-fashioned way – by hand! If you’re only looking to add a little flair to a neckline or other small area, the hand set buttonhole stitches will add so much class, you’ll be glad you took the time to do it the traditional way.

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Sept #1 – First, you’ll want a linen or cotton-linen blend to work with. Linen is ideal because it’s slow
to unravel and you won’t even need to use a stabilizer. Transfer your design onto the fabric using an air
soluble pen. Mark an “X” on the cutouts so you don’t get confused.

Step #2 – Place your work in an embroidery hoop. Trace around the center of each design line with
two parallel lines of loose running stitches 1/8" apart. The running stitches add a little extra padding to
your buttonhole stitches.

Step #3 – Go over those running stitches with a buttonhole stitch – making sure that the business side of
the buttonhole stitch is facing the cutout area.

Step #4 – If your cutout areas are large, you’ll want to work a few “bars” across the space to hold
everything together and prevent gaping. As you are working the buttonhole stitches in step #3, take
the needle up between the two rows of running stitches, across the cutout area and back down between
the opposite set of parallel stitches. Repeat this one more time so that you have a double thickness of
thread creating a little bridge over the cut out area. Now work a buttonhole stitch back over the bridge
WITHOUT sewing into the fabric until you get back to your starting place. Bigger areas will need
several “bars” – use your judgement.

Step #5 – When everything is all outlined in buttonhole stitches, use sharp embroidery snips to cut out
the cutouts. Be careful not to cut into the stitches! (Don’t forget to breathe at this point…the tension
can be palpable!!)

59 Comments

  • 2_dsc_1140_large

    Jan 13, 2011, 08.55 AMby magdamagda

    as always I love your articles (the introduction? “It’s also the brainchild of nuns. Go figure.”) and the themes you pick… my grandma was making lots of stuff to put on furniture – the kind of home decor that I feel like I can’t even bare to see now because I’ve seen so much:)) -she was using this technique…

    all the other things you can do with it seem so enticing! arrgh, I can’t wait to try this and incorporate it in my designs!!!

    note to myself: I really need to find time and look into all the amazing techniques in the blog archive, there’s an ocean of knowledge that could put my imagination to work in a more “informed” way!

    1 Reply
    • 35323_1550195117626_1317563306_1450393_3860676_n_large

      Jan 13, 2011, 03.38 PMby eringilday

      Thanks, Magdamagda! I would love to see what your grandma did with this technique – how cool that you remember her working it. And, I agree: the archive on Burdastyle is so massive I don’t even know where to start. Good luck! =)

  • Nach_mir___large

    Jan 13, 2011, 08.16 AMby tatomta

    This comment was deleted by the author.

    1 Reply
    • 35323_1550195117626_1317563306_1450393_3860676_n_large

      Jan 13, 2011, 03.36 PMby eringilday

      O gorgeous! You’re welcome – thanks for reading, Tatomta!

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    Jan 13, 2011, 07.21 AMby Ralf Schmitz

    this is more than adorable. a tutorial in pictures would be so fantastic!!

  • Meee_and_kelseeey_bmp_large

    Jan 13, 2011, 05.18 AMby Kelsey Edwards

    this is fabulous! i cant wait to see the tutorial so i can try it out! (:

  • 103111_amandadavis_large

    Jan 13, 2011, 04.46 AMby primandpropah

    What a great look! I am definitely going to have to explore this more. Any idea where I can get a detailed tutorial on this bad boy?

  • _mg_3848_large

    Jan 13, 2011, 03.17 AMby villeford

    This is absolutely beautiful! I’ve always wanted to know how it was done, and now all I have to do is gather up the courage to try.

    1 Reply
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      Jan 13, 2011, 11.46 PMby eringilday

      I swear if you can work a buttonhole, you can totally do this!! Good luck!

  • Louisealike_large

    Jan 13, 2011, 02.11 AMby bonsai fojas

    this is great! hope you could provide a tutorial for this with photos :)

  • Missing

    Jan 13, 2011, 01.12 AMby yomamareally

    Wow! Yet another visual feast! I remember cut work from Bali (?) being popular back in the day.

    1 Reply
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      Jan 13, 2011, 03.34 PMby eringilday

      Is that where those colorful (often purple or red) mumu dresses I see in the thrift store came from? They have colorful flowers and leaves on them?

  • Silver_strand_feb_2005_large

    Jan 13, 2011, 12.50 AMby neama

    That dress is gorgeous:) Wow what a technique

  • 66306_1666631109479_1348320060_31792221_6944520_n_large

    Jan 13, 2011, 12.20 AMby Victoria Henry

    I would also LOVE to see a tutorial on this…it’s something I’ve always wanted to learn how to do.

  • Img_0268_large

    Jan 13, 2011, 12.18 AMby bluephin

    I just love that white dress… it’s gorgeous and so lady-like…

  • Dsc_0113_large

    Jan 12, 2011, 11.21 PMby Lauren Morgan

    Thank you so much for posting this! I’ve always wondered how it was done, and now I’m itching to try it myself. _

    1 Reply
    • 35323_1550195117626_1317563306_1450393_3860676_n_large

      Jan 13, 2011, 03.33 PMby eringilday

      You’re welcome! I’d love to see what you do with it!

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    Jan 12, 2011, 10.35 PMby fosteretalk

    I want the blouse, it is so beautiful

  • 6e3656aa7036783b3e4bbc29f34d1029385afafe_large

    Jan 12, 2011, 10.34 PMby wzrdreams

    So gorgeous. I also would love to see a tutorial on this technique.

  • Img_1296_large

    Jan 12, 2011, 10.27 PMby milkyway

    Oh I love it so much

  • Dsc02324_2_large

    Jan 12, 2011, 10.24 PMby reneebies

    Wow! I want to try this!

  • Poe_large

    Jan 12, 2011, 10.18 PMby ladykatza

    Oh. Now I have something else to bug my Mom to show me!

  • Dscn5250_large

    Jan 12, 2011, 09.28 PMby mixtlii

    Looks like a lot of work… I don’t know if I’ll have enough courage to make that one day!

  • 2010-11-27_15-17-30_263_large

    Jan 12, 2011, 07.52 PMby Olivia Anne

    wowwww I’m speechless

  • Maya_kuzman_large

    Jan 12, 2011, 07.33 PMby sewella

    Have bought a fantastic umbrella (in cutwork) this summer -see here Also thanks to my mother I know how to work it Fabulous post btw!

    3 Replies
    • 35323_1550195117626_1317563306_1450393_3860676_n_large

      Jan 12, 2011, 08.16 PMby eringilday

      Thanks sewella! Nothing beats learning from your mom. =)

    • 35323_1550195117626_1317563306_1450393_3860676_n_large

      Jan 12, 2011, 09.05 PMby eringilday

      ps. the umbrella is gorgeous!

    • Maya_kuzman_large

      Jan 12, 2011, 09.50 PMby sewella

      Isn’t it?
      Thanx

  • Avatar3_large

    Jan 12, 2011, 07.09 PMby carottesauvage

    Yeahhhhh, beautiful. I was going through my grand mothers lace insets or naperons( couldn’t find any appropriate translation for this word) while being in France (some being over a century old) over Xmas..very inspiring

    5 Replies
    • 35323_1550195117626_1317563306_1450393_3860676_n_large

      Jan 12, 2011, 08.16 PMby eringilday

      Hmmm..now you have me wondering. You don’t mean napkins, do you? Glad to hear you liked the post!

    • Avatar3_large

      Jan 12, 2011, 08.23 PMby carottesauvage

      Well, they are decorative ‘napkin’ (I always associate this word with serviette, item strictly used to wipe your mouth with) usually to be displayed on mantel pieces or over a table cloth, under a vase etc..

    • 35323_1550195117626_1317563306_1450393_3860676_n_large

      Jan 12, 2011, 08.51 PMby eringilday

      I know what you mean now! I see that a lot here, too. It’s like a doily except it’s cutwork. Yes. Gotcha! Those are lovely…

    • Avatar3_large

      Jan 13, 2011, 11.58 AMby carottesauvage

      Yeah they are! Anyway great post. Hope you have many like this one in reserve!

    • 35323_1550195117626_1317563306_1450393_3860676_n_large

      Jan 13, 2011, 11.44 PMby eringilday

      Thanks!

  • Damasks_vignette_tall350_large

    Jan 12, 2011, 06.27 PMby commonlucy

    Please tell me that you have a tutorial to this, this is absolutely beautiful!

    1 Reply
    • 35323_1550195117626_1317563306_1450393_3860676_n_large

      Jan 12, 2011, 08.15 PMby eringilday

      Hi Lucy! Right now all I have is the step by step at the bottom of the post. Request for a more detailed (photo) tutorial duly noted! =)

    • This is a question
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