ExhibitionsStitches in Time: Embroidery Past and Present and The Victorian Bedroom

Museum Exhibition 1994

Stitches in Time: Embroidery Past and Present

An exhibition of embroideries from around the world from the seventeenth century to the present day.

Embroidery is one of the oldest of the decorative arts. Although its origins are lost in time, there are few cultures in which embroidery has not been part of everyday life.

This exhibition is not about the stitches and techniques of embroidery. It is about the embroiderers and their creations. Every embroidery has a story. It has a maker and a reason for being. Embroideries have been made by professional and domestic embroiderers, both men and women, and many embroideries have meaning and purpose beyond their obvious beauty.

Many people view embroidery as simply an activity for leisure time; a hobby; a pleasant pastime for women who have nothing better to do. However, for many men and women embroidery has been work and, all too often, the reward for working long hours with artistry and skill has been only a pittance. Some of these embroiderers have worked in professional workshops while others have worked at home as outworkers or as part of an organised cottage industry.

In nineteenth century England, numerous ‘Work Societies’ were established for ‘gentlewomen whose circumstances render it necessary that they should employ their leisure time remuneratively’.

Embroiderers have worked in convents and orphanages, in charity workshops and in refugee camps.

The making of quilts at home by the miners’ wives in Durham and the neighbouring counties in the early twentieth century, was often a means of supplementing the family income. Indeed, for widows or the wives of men injured in the mines, it may have provided the only income.

Not only have Nuns embroidered vestments and altar linens, but many have also provided an income for their Orders by embroidering trousseau linens, underwear, and baby layettes. Reputedly ‘worked by Nuns’, the fine quality of the work in the cutwork cloth (1992-075) certainly supports this claim. It was bought in the 1930s from a man who brought his suitcase of beautiful linens to the homes of prospective buyers.

The Ayrshire needlework industry originated in Scotland towards the end of the eighteenth century. Embroiderers worked at home using materials that were delivered by the agents, who then collected the finished embroidery and took it to the warehouses where it was made up and laundered. Tens of thousands of women undertook this work, working on fourteen to sixteen hours a day and seldom earning more than ten shillings a week. This was, nevertheless, a significant addition to the meagre earnings of their menfolk working as miners and labourers.

‘Embroidery to the women of Madeira is not a pastime. It is their life’s work. It is through their skill with a needle that they help supplement the family income.’ (The Embroidery of Madeira by Walker and Holman). First introduced in the 1850s, the skills are handed down from mother to daughter. Embroiderers work at home as part of a well organised industry, which is government controlled with rigid standards regarding the quality of work and the wages to be paid.

Buttony, the making of buttons, began in Dorset towards the end of the sixteenth century and expanded to employ nearly every woman and child in the area. Women worked in their own cottages and walked to the village each week on ‘Button Day’ to deliver the finished buttons to the agent in exchange for payment and fresh materials. In 1805, the button makers were paid between 1 shilling and sixpence and 4 shillings a gross for their buttons, while children were paid 1 shilling a week for preparing materials. When the industry collapsed in the mid-nineteenth century, extreme poverty resulted, and hundreds of button makers emigrated to Perth, Moreton Bay and Quebec.

Maureen Holbrook. Curator

The Victorian Bedroom

Women throughout the Victorian era embroidered either for leisure, payment, or education.

The upturn in Victorian economic conditions gave women, especially those of the middle and upper classes, more leisure time to pursue activities such as embroidery. However, there were women who, out of necessity, embroidered for payment. For example, to women outworkers and those affected by the Irish potato famine and the downturn in the activity of the weaving mills, embroidery was a means of survival in a harsh world.

A wide variety of objects for the home and personal use was embroidered by the various classes of Victorian women. A selection of such objects, which are indicative of the embroidery techniques used; from needle painting to canvas work, from whitework to lace, throughout the Victorian era, were chosen for this exhibition.

The diversity of materials and fabrics available to the Victorian embroiderer was as diverse as the embroidery techniques used. These included silk to leather. Even punched card was used to produce such things as pictures, bookmarks and needle cases.

The most popular type of embroidery during Queen Victoria’s reign was canvas work, which was known as Berlin Wool Work. This was because the printed patterns and the wools to work them came originally from Germany. It became so popular it almost destroyed all other forms of embroidery. Strongly associated with Berlin Wool Work was the use of beads. From the 1850s onwards, entire designs were worked in beads, to the extent that it developed into a form of embroidery in its own right.

Beads were also particularly popular in the decoration of other ground materials such as velvet. It may be said that hardly a middle- or upper-class home was without embroidered objects worked in Berlin Wool Work and beadwork.

Where certain forms of Victorian embroidery lost their popularity due to the interest in Berlin wool work, the hand production of other embroidery techniques, in particular lace and whitework, were affected by the introduction of machines.

Victorian women excelled at whitework embroidery (the generic name covering the many styles of embroidery carried out using white threads on a white ground). Two forms, Mountmellick and Broderie anglaise, are featured in this Exhibition. Both were produced by professional and amateur needlewomen. Amongst the professional embroiderers were outworkers who hand made Broderie anglaise. As they could not compete with the machine-made product, their economic position diminished drastically.

Needlepainting, which was either worked completely with wool or with silk on a pre-painted ground, enjoyed popularity among the well-to-do leisured women during the early stages of the Victorian era. Though ousted in popularity by Berlin wool work, needle-painting was still being produced in the 1880s but they were few in number.

Samplers of the Victorian era were worked, in the main, by the school child as an exercise in neatness and the learning of numerals and the alphabet. Although samplers were thought to be essential in the education of a young girl, it is suggested that they were not an exciting class activity. This was reflected in some of the finished products.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Victorian taste began to change. This can be attributed to the revival of Crewel work, which brought about a decline in the popularity of Berlin wool work, the influence of the oriental-inspired Aesthetic Movement and of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Maureen Holbrook. Curator