This 19th century mat is decorated with beetle wings, gold braid and gold thread. It was made in India and I found it in a random search of the museum collection at the Embroiderer's Guild in the UK. (Photo credit: Stephen Brayne.)
I fell in with the piece, and that love led me to the contemporary work of fiber artist Michael Cook. This is a person I so wish I could have dinner with. Below is a detail shot of one of Cook's beetle wing pieces.
Now you're feeling it, aren't you?! They are so beautiful - like living jewels. Not even mentioning the deeper, more disturbing thing about stitching a wing - a flying thing - down forever.
Michael Cook sent a very kind email answering all my questions about beetle wing embroidery. I first wanted to know what it is like to work with the wings. He replied,
"...the wings are actually quite sturdy, like a fingernail...[fiber artist] Victoria Z. Rivers taught me the best way to pierce them. The wings are steamed in a colander for five minutes over boiling water, then pierced with a needle held in a pin vise. A cork behind the curve of the beetle wing will protect the wing and your fingers. Be sure to pierce from the shiny side to the dull side, if you do it the other way, it will split..."
Cook stitches the wings to fabric using a small #10 needle and silk embroidery thread spun from his own moth colony.
You can find more of Michael Cook on his website. He has published a wealth of information about silk manufacture and culture. There is a great online article about beetles in textiles here. For general information about the history and techniques of beetle wing embroidery, Michael recommends checking out this book by Jane Nicholas. Can't wait for mine to come in the mail.