Thursday, November 12, 2009

Beautiful busy work

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Loretta reports:

My maternal grandmother, who came from the old country, tried to teach me all the needle skills every housewife had to know: sewing, darning, crochet, and embroidery. I deeply regret to say that none of the training took. Except for embroidery. I loved it and embroidered all kinds of things: pillowcases and my clothes and handkerchiefs and any bit of cloth I could make pictures in silk thread on. But then other occupations needing my hands--like writing--occupied more and more of my time. I haven't embroidered in years, except in fiction, and I miss my silks and my needles and hoops.

So I was enthralled by the embroidery I saw at Colonial Williamsburg. They embroidered everything, we were told, from head to toe, hat to shoes.

The silk work bag above is a beautiful example. As Susan mentioned in the comments to my post about riding habits, one rarely sees the ladies of CW without their work bags.

When they sat waiting for an event, or talking to their friends, they were usually doing some sort of needlework. Susan theorizes that the work bag served a function similar to the cell phone: It makes a girl look like she’s got something to do, especially when she’s alone.


Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

The milliner who showed us this bag also told us that there were historical references to certain uninspired ladies who would carry a workbag as a stylish accessory, though in fact there wouldn't be any needlework inside. I guess it was the old theory of "the Devil finds work for idle hands" -- that even if a lady didn't actually DO any work, she'd better at least look as if she did. *g*

theo said...

My paternal grandmother was born in 1882. She and my aunt taught me how to knit, tat, embroider, hand sew (including how to do french seams which I used when I made all of my clothes)crochet, make lace...they were from an era where you did that and they made sure I would know how. My girls pretty much could care less. The older one knows how to hand sew, though her stitches are atrocious, but the younger one? Nothing. I think those kinds of hand crafts are becoming a lost art and it's a shame.

Michelle Buonfiglio said...

How lovely. I'm wondering about the tealish decorative frilly edging. Is there a name for that "notion?" Would that have been hand made or bought, like lace? And I adore the photo of the woman, that cap and bonnet, as well as the lovely piece of material on the back of the gown which I know you've named before but I've forgotten. It's one of my fave things about gowns of that era. Tres Frahnch, no?

Katy Cooper said...

Thank you so much for this wonderfully vivid exploration of Colonial Williamsburg -- it completely whets my appetite to go! (And it would be something of a research trip, for the story bubbling on a back-burner.)

Is there any particular time of year you would recommend going? Or is it pretty much the same whenever?

Loretta Chase said...

Susan, I liked the reminder that the ladies were expected to be doing this sort of work. People don't realize that even the queen did needlework, and took pride in it. Theo, I do wish I'd kept up some of the training. There's something very satisfying about doing needlework: When you're done, you've something tangible to show for it. Not everything we do is like that. Michelle, we were told that the edging was customarily bought--but the CW people had to make this, because they couldn't find it ready made. Michelle, this sort of thing is called, I believe, "Passementerie." Nowadays this specific fringe/tassel thing is called "eyelash," apparently, but we don't know what specific name, apart from "edging" it would have had in the 18thC. Katy, I'm glad the excitement is contagious. I've been to CW in spring and in autumn and it's been just as wonderful. I suspect summer might be a bit too hot for us New Englanders.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Katy, I agree with Loretta about the weather -- definitely spring and fall are the best, esp. for New Englanders. Weather is an issue, since most of CW is out of doors, and programs like the carriage rides are cancelled in bad weather (rain and snow.)

That said, Christmas is probably the most popular time to visit, with gorgeous decorations and special holiday programs (and not much snow to speak of.) The months directly after Christmas are very quiet, with limited programs, so it's probably best to wait for spring. The gardens are fantastic!

For a day-by-day calendar of coming events and programs, check out the CW website at

Katy Cooper said...

Thank you both for your advice -- now I'm itching to go!

And I'm totally with you on the satisfaction of "I made this!" I replaced the edging on a blanket, sewing it by hand (because the sewing machine just seemed too complicated), and I tell you, I've shown it to everyone who can be persuaded to look...

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Katy, Loretta and I are TOTALLY in sympathy with handwork; I'm (in)famous for being a compulsive knitter. We would definitely ooh and ahh over your blanket border!

Though calling ourselves DIYTNHGs might be a few letters too many....*g*

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