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QUESTION: I saw a beautiful embroidery which I have never seen before. I was told that it was called HEDEBO. Can you explain how to do it?


by Kay Montclare

Hedebo embroidery, which originated and was used almost exclusively in Denmark, is probably one of the least known embroidery techniques, although one of the most beautiful. Few books give instructions in Hedebo and references are scarce. It is an advanced and intricate form of embroidery, taking patience and precision for execution, and because motifs and patterns are small and irregular it is seldom seen or used

Hedebo is a form of openwork where a small patterned shape is constructed and then filled, using various buttonhole stitches to form pyramids, bars and other motifs. The patterned shape can be worked directly in a piece of fabric as an insertion, or constructed first and attached to a piece of fabric as an edge. Hedebo has the feeling of Needleweaving, Cutwork, Reticella, Broderie Anglaise and lace, all together, and yet it is unlike any one of them. Unlike Reticella Lace, which it vaguely resembles, the open areas are not only square but many have curved outlines forming petals, leaves, circles, hearts or other irregular shapes. Diamonds and triangles can also be included in the motifs. Open areas are relatively small, some only about an inch or so across, which is why this embroidery technique is more difficult than some others. You will find, however, that very large areas can be worked as you become more adept at the technique. Because Hedebo is exquisitely elegant, little other embroidery is needed except for tying the design together so plain Satin Stitch is almost always the choice while all of the stitches used in Hedebo, itself, are variations of buttonhole. Rings are one of the distinctive characteristics of this lovely technique, being made with the use of a Hedebo ring stick. This is a tool about 7" long which tapers gradually, or which is graduated in different diameters, so that different sized rings can be made.


A knitting needle, or your finger, can be substituted but you may find it unsatisfactory if you wish to vary the sizes of a number of rings or make a lot of rings the same size. In bygone days little rings could be purchased but now all must be made by the embroiderer. Plastic or metal rings will not do, as all rings must be made with thread.


Before doing any patterns, the separate techniques of Hedebo should be mastered.

(1) Looped edge stitch

(2) Building pyramids

(3) Making bars

(4) Making rings


It is necessary to learn this variation of the Buttonhole stitch as it is used in the building of pyramids. It is worked left to right, with the edge facing away from you, so that you build to the North, whether you are making pyramids or filling rings. Bring needle to front, about 1/4" from edge of fabric. Go over and around fabric edge and bring needle to front again, just to the right. Before tightening thread around edge, take needle through loop, from the backside, and then tighten by taking the thread away from you. This forms a firm edge on which to build. Keep your stitches even and the tension consistent and you will find that you develop a rhythm. (Plain buttonhole stitch may be used, however, you will not have such a pronounced edge on which to work.)


Make an edge and after doing 8 or 10 stitches, when you reach the last stitch, tighten your thread. The width of the base of a pyramid in stitches will determine the height it will be as there will be one row high for each stitch wide. All pyramid rows work from left to right.

Take your thread back to the left and, from the back, go between the seventh and eighth buttonhole from the right hand end. The long thread laying on the top of the edge stitching will be included in your next row of looped edge stitches. (The first thread on the left hand end, marked "F", which gets you to the first LES, is not counted as a stitch.) Working to the right, do another row of LES (looped edge stitches), putting one stitch between each one of the previous row. Work 6 stitches.

When you reach the right hand end, jump back to the left, and go from the back, into the space made by the "F" thread. Work right, doing 5 stitches. Repeat stitching rows until you reach the top of the pyramid, with one stitch on your needle. Whip the right edge of the pyramid to get back to the base. Remember all rows work left to right, and all bases must have an even numbers of stitches.



Bars between motifs, pyramids, fabric edges, and each other are relatively easy to make, They can stand alone, or they can be the base of pyramids. Simply go back and forth from one place to another, three or four times, ending on the left end, and then LES back to the right hand end. Picots may be used on long bars if you wish. Figure "8" bars are rarely used.



Rings are best made with plain buttonhole stitch. Wrap thread around stick several times to get the desired thickness. Usually four or five times makes a good base depending on the weight of the thread being used. Passing the needle between the ring threads and the ring stick buttonhole all the way around the ring. After the first seven or eight stitches you may find it easier to remove the ring from the stick and work the ring in your fingers. After the last buttonhole stitch has been completed, fasten your thread by passing the needle under the stitches on the wrong side of the ring. Cut thread close to the ring.

After mastering these four steps, you should be able to do all Hedebo embroidery, as they are all the stitches on which the technique is based.




Fabric Insertion

Most Hedebo embroidery is used as insertion into fabric, however, the open area in the fabric must be prepared to receive the embroidery. As areas are very irregular in shape rather than geometric, and rarely run with the grain of the fabric, the fabric must be stabilized in order to prevent stretching or distortion. The way to do this is to outline the pattern with one or two rows of running stitches, preferably two, making sure running stitches are firm and securely in place, as they must hold the pattern when the fabric is cut away. An embroidery hoop is an option here.

After the motif has been outlined, material is cut away inside the stitches, leaving enough fabric to turn back. It is not necessary to double turn, as the fabric is held securely by your stitches and will not ravel. When patterns include curves, you will have to slash the fabric at frequent intervals to get a smooth line, but do it as you stitch along the edge, not too far ahead of your work, to prevent stretching the curve.

Stitch the entire edge of the pattern motif, but keep stitches set a little apart as you will be using the area between the stitch. Not only that, too many stitches, too close together, will distort the edge of the area.

After the entire edge is finished, turn the fabric to the wrong side and cut away excess fabric close to your stitches. in a circle, the number of stitches around the perimeter will determine the number of pyramids it will hold. Six or eight stitches make the best bases for pyramids, so if you have 40 stitches around the perimeter of a circle, it would hold 5 pyramids with 8 base stitches. If you have 45 stitches it would hold 9 pyramids with 6 base stitches. It is permissible to have unused stitches between bases.

Be sure to plan ahead so you don't have an odd number of stitches left over. If you have 43 stitches, for instance, you won't come out even with either 6 or 8 stitch bases.

All pyramids do not have to be the same size; it many times varies a pattern to alternate big and small around a motif.

Because the open areas are relatively small, you will not always want to buttonhole, or LES, every bar as this would make too heavy a design. In these cases make bars by going from one place to another and then merely going around the thread three or four times to get back to the starting point. This acts as a bar and gives stability but does not add bulk to the design. These fine bars can be used to pull curved bars together, fill rings, or hold the points of pyramids.

Another way to fill the circle is to make very loose buttonhole stitches around the inside, in every third or fourth stitch, going counter clockwise. Then reverse and go clockwise, whipping the inner circle.

This leaves a small hole in the center of the finished motif. More than one row of loose buttonhole stitches can be done, added one to the other, to entirely fill the circle if desired. When doing other shapes, such as ovals or petal shapes, obviously pyramids will not fit evenly as they do in a circle, so a foundation must be laid as a base on which to build. Bars are placed in such a way to make the shape in which pyramids will fit.

Remember, as in all openwork, the original shape of the fabric must be kept intact. That is, when you open a hole in the fabric, such as an oval, you must replace the removed fabric with stitches that retain the oval shape that you cut away. If you have trouble retaining the pattern after you remove the fabric, before you start final stitching within the pattern, baste the ground to another piece of fabric. Using running stitches around the motif, about 1/4" away, and stitch so that the shape you want to maintain is firm. This will keep your fabric stable while you stitch the open area.

Use of Rings

As far as I know Hedebo is the only form of embroidery which uses thread rings in the construction. After the rings are constructed, before cutting the thread, a pyramid can be built right into the ring itself. Several of these can be stitched together to make a single pattern.

Hedebo is a very precise and time consuming stitching technique and instant success is not to be expected. If, however, you are striving for unsurpassed elegant beauty you will find no more beautiful results than in Hedebo embroidery, so it is well worth the effort and the time expended.

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