Promoting Natural & Cultural History
Appliqué, gold embroidery, drawn thread work, satin-stitch, cross-stitch, petit point, etc. These stitches can be found on domestic furnishings like pictures as well as cushions, upholstered armchairs, mantelpiece cloths and other decorative textiles for the home. The material used might include wool, silk, linen, cotton, gems and beads as well as silver and gold thread. These objects vary enormously in size, from miniature wall pictures to Berlin wool work embroideries a metre high with reproductions of landscapes. The number of colours used also varied greatly as pictures would often be embroidered in every shade of the rainbow or embellished with beads while other embroiderers kept to strict geometrical designs with two contrasting colours. This essay will look closer into Whitby Museum collections aiming to illustrate the traditions of such colourful embroideries over a one-hundred-and-fifty-year-long period.
Many preserved embroideries in Whitby Museum textile and social history collections have been studied from a local as well as a hands-on skill perspective – research which originally was published in my monograph The Textile History of Whitby 1700-1914. It must be noted though, that some of these household textiles were presumably made elsewhere in Britain. This essay aims to present additional illustrative material to give further insight into such craft skills made in a domestic sphere, together with thoughts on local, regional, national or even more geographically wide stretching influences for some of these embroideries. Unique personal designs, local traditions, national characteristics as well as mass-produced pattern designs for Berlin wool work etc sold in several countries are part of this museum collection. It is evident that the consumer revolution accelerated during industrialisation by reaching larger groups of society, possibly due to more affordable and increasing amounts of machine-spun yarns, machine-woven canvas and after the 1850s synthetically dyed yarn giving a new often more garish scale of nuances.
The Berlin wool work embroidery style, dating from the second half of the 19th century, is well-represented on personal items like purses, belts and bags but was also popular for home furnishing objects. This kind of embroidery was sewn on coarse canvas weave with strong wool yarn in tent- or cross-stitch, preferably against a dark foundation with a flower arrangement in many colours. Large or small quantities of beads were frequently included in these embroideries too, as visualised in some of the pictures. The beads would either be used in contrast with the yarn used, or the flowers could be done in beads while the leaves and foundation were embroidered in quality wool. This technique was often used in illustrating flowers, though repeated latticework patterns of stars and squares are also found on minor accessories like purses and bags. Landscapes and religious motifs of this kind were also common – usually in a large format: the collection contains two objects of this kind, one with horses in natural surroundings (95 x 120cm), and the other a Holy Communion scene dated 1881 (56 x 67 cm).
The Berlin wool work craze mainly became so popular in the mid-19th century with the growing number of women who had enough leisure to embroider and adorn their homes with up-to-date interior furnishings and the increasing availability. Such embroidery was comparatively easy for amateurs since the instructions came with a visual pattern on charted paper that showed how the stitches in each colour should be counted and sewn with wool yarn on a coarse canvas. This kind of embroidery had been marketed as early as the 1830s, but the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the introduction of women’s magazines with their special housekeeping tips and interior-decoration novelties contributed to greatly increasing its popularity. An ability to embroider beautifully was also considered a particularly suitable accomplishment for girls in well-off families and their mothers, like piano playing, watercolour painting and reading. Besides, it was a mark of the family’s high social status if the women could afford to occupy themselves with “dainty embroidery” as a recreation, rather than need to undertake paid work to contribute to the family’s finance. On the other hand embroidery and sewing at home were considered a suitable source of income for women from the higher classes, if the family happened to be temporarily or for longer periods short of money.
An older type of embroidery mostly dating from the second half of the 18th century is known as Georgian Picture Embroideries. These might reproduce religious scenes or pictures from the theatre or literature made with silk or fine wool on silk cloth. There are two embroideries of this kind in the Whitby collection. Both religious characters, feature ‘Isaac at the Well’ and the ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’, and were probably produced at the end of the 18th century or a little later. Both have painted hands and feet, with other details sewn in long and short satin stitches with added French knots. This extremely fine detailed work must have been done by an accomplished embroiderer, on a fine silk base, which has now partly decayed while the actual embroidery is still in good condition. It is by no means unusual for old silk to “eat itself up” through wear and tear, or from weight when a garment has been kept hung up, or when the act of embroidering itself has caused the cloth to disintegrate. In another extant piece, parts of the embroidery itself are in the process of disintegrating, since the wool yarn used has been made brittle by a powerful mauve colour that became popular after the introduction of aniline dye in 1856. According to the catalogue card, this particular piece of embroidery was done by Mrs Clarkson in Whitby, on canvas with mainly wool yarn but also with silk in cross-stitch and petit point.
An embroidery dated 1797 features a picture of Whitby Abbey sewn entirely on silk in backstitch with black silk thread. This kind of embroidered reproduction of the engraved or copperplate illustration of a well-known local building was popular around the turn of the century in 1800. It is in general embroideries from well-to-do households that have mostly had the good fortune to be preserved for future generations. This is because those living when the object was made were as likely as succeeding generations to want to preserve exclusive accessories, while humble everyday items from working-class homes would be more likely to be consumed until worn out, altered, adapted, or re-used as rags.