Friday, 25 March 2016

The Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch-Off : Part 2 : Sewing back in time.

The Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch-Off  :
Part 2 : Sewing back in time.

Just to Re-Cap
My choice of project really came down to wanting to make something that  whilst able to stay true to 18th century techniques , threads and stitches, could be understood in a practical way today. The glorious (and somewhat more hygienic) paper tissue have rendered handkerchiefs superfluous and most of the splendid embroidered items of choice from TLM are now rendered outmoded or impractical, much as I would adore to teeter around in embroidered shoes! Some weeks ago I purchased an embroidery book of the 1880’s and thought what a pity it was that so many of its projects had been so diluted over time. Disregarding fashion items, there were fire screens, table covers, mantle covers, chair covers and every impossibly laced and over embellished receptacle possible for the sitting room, parlour, study, nursery and bedroom known to man. In fact you could safely say that no surface was safe from the possibility of being embroidered, beaded or crocheted.

 I decided on a Kissing Ball for a no more intelligent  reason than because its oval segments fitted the patterns I chose from  the embroidered shoes!  Strictly speaking  the zeal of the Puritans between the 16th and 18th centuries eradicated decorations until the somewhat more jovial Victorians resurrected the art of celebratory symbolism that Kissing Balls evoked. Balls of foliage were soon translated into stitch (along with everything else, it seems!) and became wedding trinkets. Formerly made from left over pieces of lace and beads and given to a bride, they are undergoing something of a renaissance today.

Light and Sight

Strip away the front kitchens and back bathrooms of my savagely converted Victorian mansion house, and you reveal the tell-tale signs of a home built before the illumination of electricity.  The majestic open hall and staircase curling upwards, with vast stairway and landing windows would have been doused in light on a day like today (not to mention the long gone stained glass from the front door and hall window coating the walls and tiled floors with colour).The buildings South façade has vast  floor to ceiling bay windows in front  of which both my dogs are currently  reclining in the sun. Although this house was built a little under a century after TLM was in publication, the principle is the same; that before I had undertaken my Kissing Ball, I had taken for granted the limitations of natural day light (especially during the short, gloomy winder days). Having kept the designs to just a little bigger than the original at 3 inches or so, I was ever mindful of how on earth ladies completed their work with merely the aid of a large window or a candle! I would have been utterly bereft without my daylight lamp!

 Developments in optics really didn’t spring to life until The Enlightenment when newspapers were becoming more widespread. Spectacles were handmade and certainly within the reach of our wealthy ladies but yet again the rise of industrial processes meant that by the 1830’s they could be purchased readily form travelling Hawkers and opticians alike. Conversely the female readership of TLM may have been susceptible to the vagaries of fashion and may have preferred to squint! The silk shading technique which I chose to use was regarded at the time as one of the most accomplished of embroidery techniques, and much praised however it was by no means an unusual one or one reserved for professional embroiderers. What’s more plainer White Work or Tambour Work which was also popular at the time was just as hard on the eye and would have required just as much visual clarity. From captivating trips to the Bath Museum of Costume in my home county, hours on-line perusing sewn items of the time and recently revolutionizing my own vision with my first pair of glasses for close work, I find the achievements of 18th century embroiderers frankly astonishing.

Leisure time.

My time spent sewing did not fill long hours of refined leisure. My time was pre-planned, squirreled away from daily commitments of business.  They were not sunny and peaceful hours with the audibility of simply the birds singing in the garden, the wisp of wind through the trees or rain on a window pain or the cheerful voices of (equally refined) companions. Save for the noise of servants or the trot of hooves to blight their peace, the upper class ladies of TLM sat and sewed unencumbered with the time restraints of us 21st century woman and noise of the modern world. I sat sewing to the sound of constant passing traffic, the siren, next doors damn hedge trimmer, overhead aeroplanes, road works , a radio being played too loud. I paused for the text messages, the sales notifications and the people demanding my immediate attention. The Facebook updates, the Twitter updates, the BBC news updates and the Etsy Updates.

I paused to take photographs to upload to Social Media within seconds for thousands of people around the world to Twitter about and share on Facebook. From the quiet, solitary pursuit of the 18th century embroiderer, here in the 21st century I am a paradoxical mix of solitary yet social embroiderer with the ability to share my work within huge circles remotely through a mobile phone just a bit bigger than my hand.

I did wonder though if the joy of sewing was the same now as it might have been between the 1770’s and 1830’s? Though wealthy ladies were educated, suitable feminine disciplines were as restricted as dress corsets and leisure was a social status full of the restrictions of rank and good breeding. Sewing may have been seen by more ambitious lady as a sedentary, passive chore. These days, despite having less of it, leisure is roughly speaking associated with time for pleasurable things we choose to undertake. Many relate their experience of embroidery to nostalgic memories of their mothers and grandmothers.

Between the times that TLM was being published, a massive revolution in industry was taking place which made materials such as needles an everyday tool rather than prized gift. By the end of the 1800’s needlework was mainstream for girls who were educated at schools and books and paper were a part of everyday life for the masses. As TLM discontinued, other women’s publications and those dedicated to needlework alone became available to the new and aspiring Middle Classes and continued to become available to every class of woman.

Embroidery is no longer the preserve of the wealthy and leisured and as the success of the Stitch-Off shows, it is as popular as it has ever been. Although so much time and so many advances in industry, technology and social demographics have taken place, the physical act of embroidering has not changed a single bit. Although some techniques such as transferring patterns have adapted over time, frames, threads and materials have hardly changed. Likewise although institutions such as The Royal School of Needlework formalised   their procedure, stitches have remained the same both in colour theory and practice.

Our dress, manners, and surroundings may be very different from the ladies sewing between the 1770’s and 1830’s but essentially the art of embroidery is the manipulation of threads and stitches to transform the plain outline of a pattern into a unique masterpiece and this is as true now for the participants of the Stitch Off as it has been since needle first touched cloth and so it will be for future generations.  

Next Time : The Kissing Ball Workshop : Patterns & How to make


  1. Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it! Mx

  2. brilliant.. had been wondering how your were going.... excited to see the update xx cheri