This introduction to Middle-earth style needlecrafting is taken from A Stitch Out of Time, a wonderful site dedicated to tapestry, blackwork, and other needle art such as one would find adorning the halls of Rivendell. Admin note – site no longer available.
As Tolkien borrowed heavily from the ancient cultures of the Celts, Saxons, and Vikings, this needlework is sublimely adaptable to Middle-earth.
There are a wealth of ideas on stone carving, jewelry and other metal work for the Celts and Viking; but stone carvings, manuscript borders and illustration seem to be the main source for the Saxon designs.
Fig 1. Background Stitch
Having found your design, the colours and threads are the next question. Tapestry wools are useful as you can buy these in small quantities from specialist craft shops. They will also have embroidery ‘silks’ (real silks are hard to come by), and transfer pencils to transfer your design on to the fabric (these work well on light colour fabric but are less reliable on darker ones). If you intend using ‘silks’, remember that silk dyes a shade or two lighter than wool.
Now comes the real work. (Don’t ask how they managed in the dark houses of the time). The stitches need some consideration and the contemporary ones were: stem-stitch, outline-stitch, threaded running-stitch, running stitch, split-stitch, chain-stitch, couching, and surface couching.
The latter was the main method of filling in large areas on the Bayeux tapestry and is also known as the ‘laid and couched technique’. As this stitch is not often found in books on embroidery an explanation follows. Threads are laid over a given area and packed together to give a massed effect (Figure 1.). This done with a long stitch on the right side of the material with a small sideways run on the back. Come up the right side again where you finished the first long stitch. Repeat this, going back to beside the beginning of the first stitch.
Then add a series of second threads, not necessarily in the same colour. These are laid at right angles at about 5mm intervals (Figure 2.).
Finally, these are couched down to hold the whole complex in place. (Figure 3.) Each of these large areas are edged with stem or outline stitch in a contrasting colour. This is placed as close to the couched area as possible. You can also use this method to create a bold straight band by couching down five or six threads.
It is worth noting that people of the time did not seem to worry about realistic colours, and you will find blue goats, red horses and so on throughout the Bayeux tapestry. Neither did they worry if they ran out of a colour half way through a motif–they just used another shade and carried on.
Many thanks to Richard for kind use of this article.