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Embroidery, needlework and seamstresses – stitches in the fabric of history

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My interest was piqued in embroidery by the book Stiching the world: embroidered maps and women’s geographical education in which Judith Tyner describes schoolgirls in Britain and the United States creating embroidered map samplers and even silk globes designed to teach the girls, not only needlework, but geography. I’ve been meaning to write something on needlework/embroidery for some time now and have been spurred on by two new references that I’ve just documented for BBIH.

The first is a chapter in the marvellous book Hardwick Hall: a great old castle of romance, entitled The embroidery and needlework of Bess of Hardwick by Emma Slocombe which charts Bess’s acquisition and creation of embroidery and needlework for the hall. The chapter is of particular importance as this period witnessed the transition of embroidery from ecclesiastic requirements to a more secular form in the interior decoration of elite houses. The book also features tapestries as well as bed coverings and drapery.

The second is En souvenir du roi Guillaume. La broderie de Bayeux by Xavier Barral I Altet which reinvestigates the embroidery adding to a long list of existing investigations.

But of course embroidery existed before Bayeux. Laura Michele Diener’s Sealed with a stitch: Embroidery and gift-giving among Anglo-Saxon women (Medieval Prosopography, 29, 2014) and Fiona Griffiths’ “Like the sister of Aaron”: medieval religious women as makers and donors of liturgical textiles show the importance of the art in Anglo-Saxon England. While Jenifer Ní Ghrádaigh’s chapter, Mere embroiderers? Women and art in early medieval Ireland extends that geographical importance.

The Victoria and Albert museum recently held an exhibition on the Opus Anglicanum: masterpieces of English medieval embroidery producing a sumptuous catalogue, English medieval embroidery : Opus Anglicanum.

Of course many such outstanding examples of embroidery are found in ecclesiastical vestments. Frank and Peter Rhodes discuss such examples looking especially at the flowers on English copes and chasubles in their article, Medieval embroidered “water flowers”.

Terry Moore-Scott discusses the Minsterworth embroidery (an embroidered panel made up from a pre-Reformation liturgical vestment) and gives a better understanding of its intriguing history and survival since the Reformation. (Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 132, 2014).

Meanwhile, Catherine Walden takes the research further and details the episcopal vestments on funerary effigies, corroborated by existing textile fragments and descriptions of garments in the inventories of churches in her chapter, ‘So lyvely in cullers and gilting’: vestments on episcopal tomb effigies in England (in Dressing the part: textiles as propaganda in the Middle Ages).

The importance of embroidery and ecclesiastical vestments continued into the early modern period as demonstrated by Sophie Holroyd’s chapter “Rich embrodered churchstuffe”: the vestments of Helena Wintour (in Catholic culture in early modern England). Helena was the daughter of Thomas Winter, one of the Gunpowder plotters. A more detailed look at her life and embroidery is contained in Plots and spangles: the embroidered vestments of Helena Wintour.

For a meticulous look at the commissioning, production, materials and significance of embroidered motifs, Cynthia Jackson documents all this in ‘Powdered with armes ymages and angels’: an early Tudor contract for embroidered vestments. She also considers the relationship between the embroiderer and the mercer and the ways in which they collaborated to produce garments for royalty, the nobility and an increasing number of wealthy citizens.

Amanda Pullan’s article ‘Informed seeing’: Reading the seventeenth-century embroidered cabinet at Milton Manor House through its historical and social contexts, examines the cabinet and its display of biblical scenes in part showing the transition from ecclesiastical to decorative use while maintaining a foothold in the religious camp.

A more categorical move from ecclesiastical to secular is demonstrated in the chapter, Polite war: Material culture of the Jacobite era, 1688-1760 (in Living with Jacobitism, 1690-1788: the three kingdoms and beyond). Here, Jennifer L. Novotny discusses the household goods and material culture, including wall hangings and samplers, of Jacobitism.

A more recent article in some ways continues the theme of Judith Tyner. Performing curiosity: re-viewing women’s domestic embroidery in seventeenth-century England, by Mary M. Brooks, describes a specific type of pictorial, decorative embroidery, usually learnt in school and practiced in the home. While an indicator of status and wealth, these “curious works” are placed within the changing concept and practice of curiosity (and education) in early modern England.

The relationship between needlework and writing (and women’s education) is explored further in Dress culture in late Victorian women’s fiction: literacy, textiles, and activism by Christine Bayles Kortsch. While examining the inextricable relationship between the material culture of dress and sewing, Kortsch documents how stitching samplers continued to be a way of acculturating girls in print literacy. She  explores nineteenth-century women’s education, sewing and needlework, mainstream fashion, alternative dress movements, and female labour in the textile industry.

The role and representation of the seamstress is provided by Lyn Mae Alexander’s Women, work, and representation: needlewomen in Victorian art and literatureUsing literary examples from Dickens and Gaskell, visual representations by Millais and others, as well as illustrations from the periodical press, she outlines the working conditions of the professional seamstress – the long hours, very small wages, isolation and helplessness, creating powerful image of working-class suffering that appealed to the sensibilities of the social reformers and helped stimulate public opinion in the need for reform.

The Seamstress; or, the White Slave of England (George W. M. Reynolds)

The rise of “art embroidery” during the nineteenth century and the developing commercial ventures as well as the significance of the embroidery business to female employment is revealed in Linda Cluckie’s The rise and fall of art needlework: its socio-economic and cultural aspects. The commercial side of embroidery mobilized activity through numerous agencies such as department stores, depots and charitable institutions. However the working conditions of the female labour is explored in such chapters entitled, Suitable employment for women; Sweated labour and the need for radical change; and Beyond the sweated trades, all indicative of those conditions.

Not all women were subjected to “sweated labour”. One such example, Matilda Pullan, made a career of needlework instructor and periodical contributor. Forced by personal circumstance, she became one of the most prolific contributors of needlework patterns, generating her own income that allowed her to become financially independent through her widowhood and spousal separation. Her life is charted in Threads of life: Matilda Marian Pullan (1819-1862), needlework instruction, and the periodical press by Marianne Van Remoortel.

I’ll end on a poignant article, Wilful design: The sampler in nineteenth-century Britain in which Chloe Flower uses the autobiographical sampler from the needle of a 17-year-old Sussex girl named Elizabeth Parker worked in 1830. It recounts Parker’s childhood experiences in domestic service, and the physical abuse and sexual assault that led her to contemplate suicide, all compressed into 46 lines of cross-stitch. The same sad life is also explored in Maureen Daly Goggin’s chapter, Stitching a Life in “Pen of Steele and Silken Inke”: Elizabeth Parker’s circa 1830 Sampler in (Women and the material culture of needlework and textiles, 1750–1950); as well as in Nigel Llewellyn’s, Elizabeth Parker’s ‘Sampler’: memory, suicide and the presence of the artist (in Material memories: Design and evocation).

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