Monograph of the Meropidæ Part Four: Onlays and Embroidery

A blog post all about colour, colour and more colour! I am never one to throw away scraps and over the years I have amassed quite a collection of leather parings. One day a few years back when I was likely procrastinating over something else I decided to sort these into bags of similar colours and now have a drawer full of fairly organised pieces.

This book was going to require a large variety of colours to cut into the feather onlays, so I set about working out which colour was going to work best for each. The strips of leather parings were each backed with lens tissue to provide stability and once dry I matched the strips of leather with the feathers.

The feathers were each coded so that once cut out I knew where to place each one. I cut around the paper outline of each feather before turning it upside down on the reverse of the strip of leather and drawing around the outline with a fine pen. The leather was then cut out using sharp scissors.

~ Cutting out onlay templates from paper

As the feathers varied in colour along their length I decided to add colour to the leather onlays using acrylic paints. The feathers were coloured so that they better matched tonally with the picture of each one I was trying to recreate.

I used a watery mix of acrylic paints and built the colour up gradually using a fine brush.

~ Painting the leather onlays with acrylics

Once the feathers were each painted and dry it was time to start sticking them to the covering leather. The teal bull skin I chose was going to cover just the front and back boards alone and not the spine so I prepared two separate pieces. These pieces were pared using my Brockman paring machine on all four edges down to 0.4mm. The step created during this process was then further pared down to a bevel.

I copied the cover design onto a piece of tracing paper to use as a template for placing the feathers. I fixed the piece of leather to a board and then stuck the tracing paper template down on top, hinged on one side by sticking it down using a strip of masking tape.

Where feathers were designed to lay on top of each other in the design, I wanted to avoid creating extra bulk here. I therefore chose to cut away the part of the bottom feather underneath where the top one was going to lie on top. The edge of the feather above was marked onto the bottom feather and cut slightly overlong, so that they overlapped a little and no gap would be seen (see below two images to the left).

Little by little I built up the design by overlapping the feather onlays, sticking each down using PVA glue and rubbing well with a Teflon folder.

~ Sticking down the onlays onto the cover leather

Once I was happy with the colour applied to the onlays with the acrylic paints I began working on the embroidery. I have learnt a bit about feather anatomy during this project too which has been quite important to writing this blog for a start! I started embroidering the shafts of each of the feathers first, using a mixture of thicknesses of threads and colours to vary the bulk up to the calamus of the feather shafts.

“The two main parts of the feather are the shaft and the vane. The shaft is the main central support that runs the length of the feather. The vane is the part of the feather that unzips and rezips. The vanes give the feather its overall shape. There is a vane on each side of the feather’s shaft.

The part of the shaft where the vanes are located is called the rachis. The exposed base of the shaft is called the quill or calamus. The vane of a feather is very intricate. It’s composed of structures called barbs. The barbs are laid out in parallel rows, which extend from the rachis.

Located along the barbs are structures called barbules. A single barb can contain several hundred barbules. These barbules overlap other barbules from neighboring barbs. At the end of the barbules are barbicels – tiny hooks that connect barbules to each other, interlocking neighboring barbs.”

Project Beak

Once the shafts were embroidered I then moved on to the vanes. Using long lengths of fine embroidery thread, I worked my way up each feather with wide angled stitches, about 1mm apart from each other. Once these stitches were in place I then worked my way back down the feathers, catching the long pieces of thread. This type of stitch is known as couching and uses stitches to tack down a piece of thread to create a unique look and texture. The long thread being couched doesn’t actually penetrate the leather, but rather sits on top of it.

The vanes were built up using different coloured threads, to try and emulate the actual feathers of the bee eaters. This was graduated by starting some of the wider stitches nearer to the edge of the feathers and overlapping them to blend the colours.

~ Embroidering the feathers on the leather

The ‘afterfeather’ is the downy lower barbs of the feather which look much more fluffy that the rest of the vanes. These were built up using the same type of thread but laid onto the leather in a more random fashion to create the different texture.

Many hours of embroidery work here don’t equate to the same amount of time writing up about it! There are over sixty different feathers on this cover design, with each taking me on average of two hours to complete…that’s a lot of embroidery!

So fast forward a few hundred hours and I was at the stage where I had two totally embroidered pieces of covering leather – hooray! The side of the leather that would meet the spine leather was edge-pared very thinly and then turned over by 5mm and glued down on the reverse (visible of the bottom image on the right).

Blog post number five will explain how these pieces of leather made it onto the binding, plus what box I chose to create for this large book to live in…

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