Sunday, October 2, 2016

A Beautiful Needle Lace Sampler, 1795

Sunday, October 2, 2016
Isabella reporting,

Last week I visited one of my favorite places, Winterthur Museum, and among the current exhibitions is Embroidery: The Language of Art. Our readers know that embroidery is one of my absolute favorite things, and this exhibition had plenty of examples to make me ooh and ahh.

For most modern people, the word "sampler" means cross-stitched letters and designs. It can be that, yes, but a sampler can also feature all kinds of needlework, from decorative stitching to darning stitches and even the so-called plain stitches used to construct clothing and household goods. Most samplers were worked by schoolgirls as they learned the various stitches. Not only were the samplers an educational tool, but they could become a kind of record of stitches for future projects. If a sampler was decorative as well, then it could also be proudly displayed by the girl's family as proof of her newly-acquired expertise.

The identity of this sampler's maker is now sadly lost beyond her initials, but her exquisite workmanship remains. Worked in a school in the Philadelphia area, the sampler features both traditional embroidery stitches and needle lace to create a stylized basket of flowers, a motif popular with embroiderers in many different cultures. The sampler is worked in silk thread on linen. (As always, please click on the images to enlarge them.)

Needle lace, sometimes called Dresden work, involves cutting or drawing away parts of the supporting fabric and then using the needle to weave elaborate patterns to fill in the empty spaces. This example must have required phenomenal skill and patience from its young maker. The needle lace sections are done with very tiny stitches - the geometric circles shown in the details are only about 1-1/2" in diameter. (The pink backing is modern to provide contrast.)

Yet there's an unmistakable exuberance and joy to the design as well. Too often fine embroidery seems like drudgery to 21st century eyes, but a piece like this is clearly as much an expression of the young needleworker's imagination as a painting might have been. You can see her enjoyment in her design and her pride in the precision of her stitches. How fortunate her work has survived so we can enjoy it, too!

Winterthur will be hosting a needlework conference in connection with this exhibition on October 14-15, 2016. Entitled Embroidery: The Language of Art, the conference speakers will include international experts on needlework as well as hands-on workshops in the needle arts. Click here for the conference brochure for more information.

Above: Sampler, by "M.S.", worked in the Delaware Valley, 1795. Winterthur Museum.


Alison Larkin said...

Beautiful piece! I l love it. The needlelace is very well done.
Dresdenwork is usually white drawn thread work on muslin: different from this work. It was used for things like sleeve ruffles and neckerchiefs.

Anonymous said...

Needlework is so moving to me. Out of all the old arts and crafts, it seems the most personal. You can see and feel and sense this person's hand; their concentration, their efforts and care. The hand is long gone, but its work remains. Beautiful. I love this site, by the way. Breakfast Links is just the best, and I anxiously await it every week.

Deborah Love said...

Just beautiful..i love your blog
The Embroiderers Guild Queensland Australia

Crissouli said...

I have included your blog in Interesting Blogs in Friday Fossicking at

Thank you, Chris

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