Thursday, July 14, 2016

From the Archives: Tambour Work Embroidery, 1730-1840

Thursday, July 14, 2016
Isabella reporting,

After my post on Monday featuring knotting as an 18thc lady's pastime, I thought I'd bring back this post featuring another once-popular form of handwork: tambour embroidery.

Although the origins of tambour embroidery are a bit hazy, it appeared in Europe in the 18th c. and quickly became a popular "accomplishment" for ladies. It was considered exotic stitchery, which contributed to its popularity, and many of the finest commercial examples were imported to Britain and France from India and Persia. The rather fanciful portrait of an 18th c. Turkish lady (or more likely a French lady in Turkish dress), left, shows her working tambour embroidery on a large hoop tambour frame.

There is only one stitch to master in tambour embroidery. Instead of a needle, very fine, sharp hook is punched through a tightly stretched fabric to catch a fine thread from beneath and draw it up, creating a linked, chain-like stitch. The name "tambour work" comes from the way the fabric is held taut between two round, fitted hoops, resembling the head of a small drum, or tambour. (Demonstrating tambour work, below left, is our friend Janea Whitacre, mantua-maker from Colonial Williamsburg.)

A pattern was usually marked on the fabric, to be followed by the embroiderer, and designs were commercially available. Because the thread is continuous, a practiced worker could stitch more rapidly than by other traditional embroidery methods. It also required less concentration, which made it perfect for being industrious while socializing with friends. The finished work could be almost lacy – a popular effect when working with white thread on a white fabric – or dense with shades of color. By working rows of chained stitches closely together, it was possible to achieve beautifully shaded colorwork with a great deal of depth and subtlety, such as in this fragment, upper right.

With its single rows of chained stitches, the Hedge House petticoat border was likely the work of an industrious amateur, a lady proudly enhancing her own clothing. Much more elaborate tambour work was produced by professional embroiderers, to be made up into fashionable garments by tailors and mantua-makers. Sometimes this embroidery was done to a specific size, like the front of a gentleman's waistcoat, while other examples show an entire length of cloth covered with embroidery to achieve an overall pattern. The detail of the petticoat, lower right, shows how two such lengths were stitched together.

While tambour work embroidery was wildly popular from the mid 18th c. through the early 19th c., needlework goes in and out of fashion like everything else. In 1834, a French machine was introduced that could reproduce tambour-style embroidery at a rate 140 times faster than a woman working by hand. The commercial embroiderers vanished, and the ladies who were the amateur tambour workers were developing other interests as well. Victorian tastes shifted away from delicate needlework to the less demanding Berlin work in wool on canvas, and by the 1840s, tambour work was relegated to something your grandmother used to do, and was virtually forgotten.

Top left: A Turkish Woman, by Angelica Kauffmann, 1773, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.
Top right: Fragment of Tambour Work, India, 1700-1800, silk on cotton. Winterthur Museum.
Lower right: Tambour Petticoat, France, 1700-1750, wool on linen. Winterthur Museum.
Bottom left: Photograph of Tambour Work,  by Susan Holloway Scott.


Nora Carrington said...

You (and your readers) might be interested in the recent exploration of this needle technique by Mary Corbet, who has a long-running blog devoted to all manner of surface embroidery. See, e.g.,

Awfulknitter said...

I'm pretty sure that the Parisian firm Lesage, who do practically all haute couture embroidery, do mainly tambourwork.

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