The Truth About
Victorian Embroidery

When most people think of Victorian embroidery, visions of beautiful handwork done in rich silks and painfully precise work often come to mind. In truth, not all Victorian ladies had the luxury of embroidering with silks and working on the finest of linen or velvet. However, they all DID have one thing in common … the requirement that all sewing be done in a tasteful and careful manner. Embroidery, being one of the more common ways for a Lady to show her skills and taste, dictated that only the best was good enough and to do less than that was not only unladylike but a ill mark upon her as a woman.

Below is an article that will let you see exactly how seriously women took their needlecrafts and how important it was for them to do so. Authored by May Morris, pictured below, it was included in a book of essays written for the catalogues of the exhibitions of the Society published in 1893.

May MorrisThe technicalities of Embroidery are very simple and its tools few — practically consisting of a needle, and nothing else. The work can be wrought loose in the hand, or stretched in a frame, which latter mode is often advisable, always when smooth and minute work is aimed at.

There are no mysteries of method beyond a few elementary rules than can be quickly learnt; no way to perfection except that of care and patience and love of the work itself. This being so, the more is demanded from design and execution: we look for complete triumph over the limitations of process and material, and, what is equally important, a certain judgment and self-restraint; and, in short, those mental qualities that distinguish mechanical from intelligent work.

The latitude allowed to the worker; the lavishness and ingenuity displayed in the stitches employed; in short, the vivid expression of the worker’s individuality, for a great part of the success of needlework. The varieties of stitch are too many to be closely described without diagrams, but the chief are as follows: —

Chain-stitch consists of loops simulating the links of a simple chain. Some of the most famous work of the Middle Ages was worked in this stitch, which is enduring, and of its nature necessitates careful execution. We are more familiar with it in the dainty work of the seventeenth and eighteen centuries, in the airy brightness’ and simplicity of which lies a peculiar charm, contrasted with the more pompous and pretentious work of the same period. This stitch is also wrought with a hook on any loose material stretched in a tambour frame.

Tapestry-stitch consists of a building-up of stitches laid one beside another, and giving a surface slightly resembling that of tapestry. I give the name as it is so often used, but it is vague, and leads to the confusion that exists in people’s minds between loom-tapestry and embroidery. The stitch is worked in a frame, and is particularly suitable for the drapery of figure and anything that requires skilful blending of several colours, or a certain amount of shading. This facility of “painting” with the needle is in itself a danger, for it temps some people to produce a highly shaded imitation of a picture, an attempt which must be a failure both as a decorative and as a pictorial achievement. It cannot be said too often that the essential qualities of all good needlework are a broad surface, bold lines and pure, brilliant and, as a rule, simple colouring; all of which being qualities attainable through, and prescribed by, the limitation of this art.

Appliqué has been, and is still, a favourite method of work, which Vasari tells us Botticelli praised as being very suitable to processional banners and hangings used in the open air, as it is solid and enduring, also bond and effective in style. It is more accurately described as a method of work in which various stitches are made use of, for it consists of designs embroidered on a stout ground and then cut out and laid on silk or velvet, and edged round with lines of gold or silk, and sometimes pearls. It requires considerable deftness and judgment in applying, as the work could well be spoilt by clumsy and heavy finishing. It is now looked upon as solely ecclesiastical, I believe, and is associated in our minds with garish red, gold and white, and with dull geometric ornament, though there is absolutely no reason why church embroidery of to-day should be limited to ungraceful forms and staring colours.

A certain period of work, thick and solid, but not very interesting, either as to method or design, has been stereotyped into what is known as Ecclesiastical Embroidery, the mechanical characteristics of the style being, of course, emphasized and exaggerated in the process. Church work will never be the finest while these characteristics are insisted on; the more pity, as it is seemly that the riches and noblest work should be devoted to churches, and to all buildings that belong to and are an expression of the communal life of the people.

Another and simpler form of applied work is to cut out the desired forms in one material and lay upon another, securing the appliqué with stitches round the outline, which are hidden by an edging cord. The work may be further enriched by light ornament of lines and flourishes laid directly on the ground material.

Couching is an effective method of work, in which broad masses of silk or gold thread are laid down and secured by a network or diaper of crossing threads, through which the under surface shines very prettily. It is often used in conjunction with appliqué. There are so many varieties of couching stitches as the worker has invention for; in some the threads are laid simply and lately on the form to be covered, while in others a slight relief is obtained in layers of soft linen thread which form a kind of moulding or stuffing, and which are covered by the silk threads or whatever is to be the final decorative surface.

The ingenious patchwork coverlets of our grandmothers, formed of scraps of old gowns pieced together in certain symmetrical forms, constitute the romance of family history, but this method has an older origin than would e imagined. Queen Isis-em-Kheb’s embalmed body went down the Nile to its burial place under a canopy that was lately discovered, and is preserved in the Boulak Museum. It consists of many squares of gazelle hide of different colours sewn together and ornamented with various devices. Under the name of patchwork, or mosaic-like piecing together of different coloured stuffs, comes also the Persian work made at Resht. Bits of fine cloth are cut out for leaves, flowers, and so forth, and neatly stitched together with great accuracy. This done, the work is further carried out and enriched by chain and other stitches. The result is perfectly smooth flat work, no easy feat when done on a large scale, as it often is.

Darning and Running need little explanation. The former stitch is familiar to us in the well-know Cretan and Turkish cloths: the stitch here is used mechanically in parallel lines, and simulates weaving, so that the handsome borders in a deep rich red might as well have come from the loom as from the needle. Another method of darning is looser and coarser, and suitable only for cloths and hangings not subject to much wear and rubbing; the stitches follow the curves of the design, which the needle paints, as it were, shading and blending the colours. It is necessary to persue this facility for shading temperately, however, or the flatness essential to decorative work is lost.

The foregoing is a rough list of stitches which could be copiously supplemented, but that I am obliged to pass on to another important point, that of design. If needlework is to be looked upon seriously, it is necessary to secure appropriate and practicable designs. Where the worker does not invent for herself, she should at least interpret her designer, just as the designer interprets and does not attempt to imitate nature.

It follows from this, that it is better to avoid using designs of artists who know nothing of the capacities of needlework, and designs beautiful and intricate forms without reference to the execution, the result being unsatisfactory and incomplete.

Regarding the design itself, broad bold lines should be chosen, and broad harmonious colour (which should be roughly planned before setting to work), with as much minute work, and stitches introducing play of colour, as befits the purpose of the work and humour of the worker; there should be no scratching, no indefiniteness of form or colour, no vagueness that allows the eye to puzzle over the design — beyond that indefinable sense of mystery which arrests the attention and withholds the full charm of the work for a moment, to unfold it to those who stop to give it more than a glance. But there are so many different stitches and so many different modes of setting to work, that it will soon be seen that these few hints do not apply to all of them.

One method, for instance, consists of trusting entirely to design, and leaves colour out of account: white work on white linen, white on dark ground, or black or dark blue upon white. Again, some work depends more on magnificence of colour than on form, as, for example, the handsome Italian hangings of the seventeenth century, worked in floss-silk, on linen sometimes, and sometimes on a dusky open canvas which makes the silks gleam and flow like precious stones.

In thus slightly describing the methods chiefly used in embroidery, I do so principally from old examples, as modern embroidery, being a dilettante pastime, has little distinct character, and is, in its best points, usually imitative. Eastern work still retains the old professional skill, but beauty of colour is rapidly disappearing, and little attention is paid to durability of the dyes used. In speaking rather slightingly of modern needlework, I must add that its non-success is often due more to the use of poor materials than to want of skill in working. It is surely folly to waste time over work that looks shabby in a month. The worker should use judgment and thought to procure materials, not necessarily rich, but each good and genuine of its kind. Lastly, she should not be sparing of her own handwork, for, while a slightly executed piece of work depends wholly on design, in one where the actual stitchery is more elaborate, but the design less masterly, the patience and thought lavished on it render it in a different way equally pleasing, and brings it more within the scope of the amateur.

--- May Morris

(MY NOTE: Her attitude toward Victorian embroidery and the embroiderers of her day seemed to me a bit condescending when I first read this. Whether it was my mood at that time that made me feel that way or whether Victorian ladies who read this felt the same way will never be known. I am glad, however, that others of that era did not feel that embroidery of their time was of ill quality or substandard, otherwise, we would not have as many lovely embroidered items or books on embroidery to enjoy as we do! Her attitude is better understood if you know a little more about her. See link below)

Who WAS May Morris and
What Did She Have to Do with
Victorian Embroidery?

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The truth about Victorian embroidery is that even during Victorian times, nothing was as good as the century before. How often have you heard someone say, when referring to embroidery, that embroidery today cannot compete with that of the Victorian age? Is it really true or is today’s embroidery not given the credit it really deserves?

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