Embroidered centerpieces were, perhaps, the most appealing of table linens to the average Victorian housekeeper. In its elaboration the needlewoman could allow her fancy free rein, knowing that the centerpiece will be seen by all observers.
The shapes of embroidered centerpieces may be round, oval, rectangular - any shape, in fact, which will suit the dining table. The material is most always linen. For a square lunch center, eighteen inches, or 20 x 24 inches, is a suitable size.
The hemstitched hem, or cut-work edge, is the most satisfactory in the long run for embroidered centerpieces, as with all table linen. Fringes will mat and look untidy, and combing only results in a generally ragged appearance. Hemstitch a two-inch hem, or work a cut edge in even buttonhole or long and short stitch. The next step is the ornamentation, and let the worker remember that upon this depends the success of her work.
Having chosen a suitable linen and embroidery silks, the workwomanship must not fall below the standard. For a beginner, it is best to start with some dainty, sketchy pattern having much outline. For instance, a lattice design, dotted here and there with tiny flowers. Carefully selecting several shades of a single color, which contrasts with the flower color, the design may be made really artistic by mingling the shades, not with geometrical precision, but with a due regard for light and shadow.
A dainty embroidered centerpiece is one sprinkled with tiny daisies or violets, rose buds or forget-me-nots. When all these tiny blossoms are mingled, the pattern is known as Dresden, because of its resemblance to the famous china. Such a centerpiece, carefully worked, is worthy of becoming an heirloom. Tiny butterflies, leaves or bow knots of floating ribbon may be added with quaint effect.
The needlewoman, eager to dabble in colors of a rainbow hue, can hardly be brought to realize that a centerpiece embroidered with "life size" maiden's hair fern in three shades of green, with bronze red stems, cannot be surpassed for daintiness. Such a design is particularly appropriate for the dinner table, where, until around 1896, no color except white was ever allowed.
The introduction of Honiton lace braids into pieces of embroidery gives charming results. Not as flower centers or leaves where the lace work is incongruous, but scattered over the cloth, serving to diversify the pattern. Arranged in stars, single petals, or circles, they are appliquéd to the front of the linen with white Honiton Lace Silk or "Asiatic" Filo, using long and short stitch. The cloth is then cut away from the reverse side.
A particularly elegant embroidered centerpiece, which also did service as a tea table cover, was ornamented entirely with sprays of star-like flowers and leaves connected by floating ribbons and huge butterfly bows, all over the "oval" and "tape" Honiton lace braid.
The Louis XV patterns, as they were called, found on every-thing from furniture to jewelry, were never so charming as when re-produced on linen. The scroll-like edge should be worked with long and short buttonhole stitch, which makes the cut edge. Inside this edge the shading is with pale green, yellow or pink, using two shades of the tint in long, sketchy stitches, broken at the edge, but laid evenly side-by-side. The flowers and leaves on such a centerpiece should be worked in their respective colors, using the palest shades, that the effect of the completed cloth may be dainty and delicate impression.
Embroidery, like its sister art of painting, has its impressionist school, whose followers work buttercups shaded to deepest orange, pansies with hearts of inky purple, and poppies that flame from the snowy linen. If the worker has a good knowledge of color values and where to lay the shading, no design could be more effective. Flowers so embroidered look best when in a set pattern, as a circle of flowers with the stems all toward the center and blossoms all toward the edge, with scant foliage, so that the greens may not obtrude. Such a cloth is of course circular. The danger lies in being over anxious to make an impression.
To the needlewoman with a little talent for sketching, everything will suggest new and fanciful designs, - field flowers, a hook cover, a rug, or piece of upholstery. Having drawn the design on paper, it may be directly on the linen. Once started successfully, the dainty work not only becomes a source of pleasure as a completed embroidered centerpiece but a source of possible income.