ExhibitionsVictoriana: A Period in Time

Museum Exhibition 2019

The 2019 Royal Adelaide Show celebrated the bicentenary of Queen Victoria’s birth in 1819 by having the Handicrafts Theme – ‘Queen Victoria Challenge’. We have included in this embroidery exhibition a representative sample of the diverse range of objects created during the Victorian Era.

Queen Victoria was born Alexandrina Victoria on 24th May 1819. The reign of Queen Victoria (also Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India and Queen of many overseas colonies including Australia) began in June 1837 and continued until her death on 22nd January 1901. This long reign of over 63 years is known as the Victorian Era.

The Victorian period saw a new prosperous and industrialised Britain emerge. The industrial revolution lead to major technological advances, mass production and immense social change, in particular leading to the rise of a large middle class. The craftspeople working at home in country cottages, were largely superseded by a factory workforce who by necessity had migrated to large cities to find work in mechanised factories where the conditions were often grim.

Throughout the centuries ‘plain sewing’ and embroidery were a necessary pastime for women of all classes and ages. Families depended on them to provide and maintain, clothing, household linen, carry bags, quilts and floor rugs.

In Australia, newly arrived convicts, wives of officers and finally free settlers mainly from Britain, brought with them their traditional sewing and embroidery skills. The embroidered objects produced by these women mirrored those produced in Britain at the same time – clothing accessories and baby clothes, household items and other non-essentials. They usually embellished their work with scenes and flowers from the British countryside rather than the wildflowers and bush growing around their homes. Even the commercially produced pre stamped linen popular in the late 19th Century continued with reproducing designs in the European tradition.

The rise of this relatively prosperous middle class lead to the increasing emphasis on the importance of embroidery in decorating clothing and the home – it was no longer only the pastime of the upper classes, it was an important socially accepted activity for many women. By the 1840’s there was an accompanying industry to cater for these needlewomen.

Victorian women were able to obtain patterns to embroider:

For the home – antimacassars, fire screens, mantle valences, cushions, folding screens, bed covers, mats, footstool covers, chairs, bell pulls, carriage rugs and so on until it was possible to decorate and cover every available surface in the home.

For charity bazaars – needle cases, work bags, tea cosies, tobacco pouches, letter cases, scent bags to name a few.

For dress– gowns, aprons, waistcoats, scarves and shawls, petticoats, children’s clothes, collars, cuffs, slippers, smoking jackets and caps, cravats and many more accessories.

The most popular forms of needlework during the Victorian era include:

Berlin wool work, Art Needlework, the many forms of white work, traditional smocking, ribbon embroidery, patchwork and appliqué, especially crazy patchwork.                       

Berlin Wool Work, a form of canvas work, became the favourite needlework technique throughout most of the19th Century, it was worked by all from the Queen downwards. It involved working with Berlin wools on canvas by means of copying a coloured chart known as a Berlin pattern, although it included a much wider range of work including silks and beads. The patterns changed considerably over the period 1830 to 1880.

Firstly, subtle floral posies and wreaths, then larger and more exotic flowers with foreign birds on bright red or blue backgrounds. By the1860’s beads were added and by the 1870’s the colours became more muted again with flowers giving way to geometric patterns. The basic stitches included cross stitch, half cross, tent and herringbone stitch. Later more challenging stitches such as velvet and plush stitch were used.

Samplers as we know them today declined in use during Victorian times, although many long narrow Berlin wool work samplers have survived – made by adult needlewomen as a record of patterns and stitches collected from friends and magazines. Samplers were also still produced in schools and orphanages, often with letters, numbers and religious texts.

Art Needlework and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Berlin Wool Work was replaced as the most popular form of needlework by the 1870’s with a form of surface embroidery known as Art Needlework. This was more difficult to work as it required a certain stitching skill to work a surface design – so called ‘painting with the needle’. Embroiderers returned to sourcing patterns from artists who blended nature with Mediaeval images of romance.

The most influential artist, William Morris founded the Arts and Crafts movement to revive the quality of craftsmanship. His needlework designs are easily recognised by the curving leaves, flowers and stems adapted into artistic shapes and patterns. He dyed embroidery threads with natural plant dyes using only the finest quality materials. At a lecture in 1881 he stated ‘make the most of these materials and do not forget that we are gardening with silk and gold thread’. His designs used stitches such as darning, stem, long and short, chain, buttonhole, French knots and satin.

The School of Art Needlework was founded in 1872 (later known as the Royal School of Needlework) with the aim of providing suitable employment for gentlewomen. As well as commissioned embroideries based on designs by Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, Lord Leighton and William Crane, the school prepared packs of traced designs and threads to sell in shops such as Liberty’s. Many other needlework societies were also formed at this time based on the Art Needle style including the Leek Embroidery School established by the Wardle Company.

Whitework on linen and fine cottons such as muslin and lawn remained important throughout the century particularly for costume accessories such dress borders, collars, cuffs, capes, caps, handkerchiefs and for children’s and baby clothes.

Many of these items were produced by working class women, working at home in their cottages doing piece work in order to supplement the family’s income. At its height of popularity there were over 30,000 out workers in Western Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Ayrshire Embroidery was the most popular form of whitework till the mid 1860’s. It largely replaced the earlier tambour whitework. Ayrshire Embroidery was very intense with designs based on stylised flowers and leaves. They contained satin stitch motifs and borders with cut away spaces filled with needlepoint fillings. The stitches used were mainly satin, padded satin, eyelets, close buttonhole, stem and back stitch. Feather and French knots were also often used on baby robes. The baby’s caps had Ayrshire Embroidery on the crowns and brims, the robes were generally heavily embroidered on the bodice.

Ayrshire Embroidery declined in popularity in the 1860’s for several reasons – change in dress fashion, invention of embroidery machines producing inferior white work for a fraction of the cost and the lack of raw cotton exported from the Americas due to the American Civil War.

The inferior Broderie Anglaise became popular for ladies’ wear and children’s clothes in the mid-19th Century until replaced by machine embroidered eyelet work. It was worked on heavier cotton fabric and withstood constant laundering. The designs were repetitive with scalloped edgings and eyelet work.

Mountmellick was another form of whitework invented in Mountmellick Ireland as a cottage industry to help support families during difficult economic times. It used cheap and readily available materials – white cotton sateen cloth and white cotton thread. The designs were based on flowers, grasses, leaves and berries from the surrounding countryside. Not only could the pieces be worked quickly but they could be laundered easily. Most pieces had a knitted fringed border. Many stitches were used – stem, back, chain and satin along with Mountmellick stitch, cable plait, Bokhara couching, indented buttonhole edging, Cretan, bullion and others.

At the Great Exhibition in London of 1851 there was Mountmellick work for sale. Objects included pillow shams, bed coverlets, table linen, nightdress cases, dressing table sets.

Carrickmacross Appliqué, an embroidery on net, was another form of embroidery developed in Ireland to supplement the income of poor families. It was used for all forms of ladies’ wear – collars, cuffs, bonnets, fans and parasols, flounces and dress trims. Carrickmacross used floral designs with complex needle darned fillings usually scalloped with picot edgings.

Heather McCarthy. Curator