Saturday, June 7, 2014

Book Review: The Embroiderer's Story

Many sticky notes are the sign of a really good read! Er, that's my excuse anyway ;)

It's a little bit embarrassing to admit that this post has been over two years (eek!) in the making! Way back in 2012, I wrote about the Jane Bostocke Sampler (JBS) and shared a photo of the sampler from this book, intending to write the review soon. Well, it's finally here! LOL Hope it will be worth the wait ;)

The Embroiderer's Story: Needlework from the Renaissance to the Present Day by Thomasina Beck was first published as a hardcover in 1995, with this paperback edition following in 1999. The first thing that struck me is the sheer size of the book! It's not especially thick, but it's definitely larger than average. I've put a regular size market paperback (Sharon Shinn's Quatrain) alongside to demonstrate scale.

The beautiful cover art is a painting from 1913 called "I am Half-Sick of Shadows" by artist Sidney Harold Meteyard. It shows the Lady of Shallot (from the poem by Lord Alfred Tennyson) waiting for her lover, and whiling away the hours with embroidery. The background is a vintage Morris & Co. embroidered bedcover from 1889.

Thomasina Beck's Publisher, David & Charles (which was taken over by F+W Media), followed this design theme for her other popular books: The Embroiderer's Garden (1997), The Embroiderer's Flowers (1992, later reissued in this edition to match) and Gardening with Silk and Gold: A History of Gardens in Embroidery (1998). This discussion thread states that the latter is a revised edition of Embroidered Gardens: A Studio Book from 1979. Frustratingly, there is little information about Beck online!

One day, I would love to read more of her works, especially the Gardening in Silk and Gold. Unfortunately, all of her books appear to be out of print and very hard to find. I was lucky enough to find The Embroiderer's Story in a local library collection. It's a wonderful introduction for anyone interested in historical needlework styles!

Although there is a lot of information here, and the text is well-researched, it's all presented in a very accessible tone. One chapter flows into the next and it makes for entertaining and inspiring reading! This is more of a general interest book than an academic treatise, which is unusual and refreshing. The pictures don't always line up with the text though - there will be a page of text on needlepainting, for example, but the illustrations only turn up three pages later - but it's a minor inconvenience.

There are six chapters in all, covering the major stylistic eras. The pages are thick glossy paper with some stunning full-colour pictures, and the layout takes good advantage of all that extra space with frequent use of diagrams like these:

Pages 28 and 29 from Chapter 1, "The Elizabethan Embroiderer"

Please pardon my fingers in the photos, but I had to hold the pages flat somehow!

This is a typical layout for what I came to think of as the "inspiration" pages: photos (often colour) of historic pieces and ephemera with complimentary themes/links on one side with B&W sketches showing how the motifs might be adapted for new work on the other. These inspiration illustrations were done by Belinda Downes.

Page 24, close-up, from Chapter 1, "The Elizabethan Embroiderer"

Other design examples, like this blackwork grapevine with filling stitch suggestions, actually came from embroidery books, patterns, magazines, or manuals of the time. These types of details make the book an amazing scrapbook-like assemblage of all kinds of interesting bits that place the works within the cultures of their own times. Indeed, in the Introduction (8), Beck says that it was just simple curiosity as to how and why these things were made that led her to dig deeper into the past:

"Histories, biographies, novels, diaries and poems provided some answers, and I began piecing snippets of information together, as one might a collage, hoping thereby to build up a picture of what is was like to be an embroiderer at that time."

As a result, reading the book feels like undertaking that journey of discovery right alongside Beck as she rifles through all sorts of sources and displays examples for us to enjoy. It's a general history of styles, and so is not a project book or stitch guide but rather a sort of inspirational research journal. But there are technique hints:

Pages 60 and 61 from Chapter 3, "The Georgian Embroiderer"

As an example, this small diagram actually shows the best way to work tambour embroidery, in a laced frame or the tight hoop from which the method gets its name (a tambour is a type of drum, and refers to the tight tension necessary for the work). It actually makes a great deal of sense that the illustrations of older times were so intricate as most readers had limited literacy and printers had limited book space!

Here is one of my favourite examples of historical needlework in the book:

This twining floral design, worked with silks on a hostess apron in 1736 (page 63, Chapter 3) is still so beautiful! I really like the heavy shading in the center carnation, which looks a little like a whirligig with its fringed petals, and the roses :)

This sort of twining vine-based floral embellishment was very popular in this time, as also shown on this handsome crewelwork waistcoat from the 1740s (71, Chapter 3).

Page 104, close-up, from Chapter 5, "The Victorian Embroiderer"

Brightly coloured wools surged in popularity in the Victorian era when new dyes were developed; unfortunately, many of them were unstable and many works did not survive. A style of counted embroidery known as "Berlin Woolwork" soon became a fad (much criticized for poor taste and lack of style in its time!), and was the direct ancestor of modern cross-stitch! I really love this style, which is based on florals and geometrics with shading so intense that it often clashes. It is amazing to think that the hand-painted graphed charts eventually gave way to the craft we know today :)

Among the other odds and ends, each chapter also has a delightfully imagined pincushion drawn by quilter Paddy Killer. All her illustrations for this book can be seen on this page. My favourite one is this Victorian sewing garden (Chapter 5, 115)!

Towards the end of the era, the influence of the modernizing Arts & Crafts movement lead by William Morris becomes evident, with a preference for naturalistic motifs. These tiny Christening mittens embroidered by his daughter May Morris are sweet :)

Here is my absolute favourite work in this book, a blackwork and goldwork pillow:

Amazingly, although it looks eras older, this is a 20th Century reproduction! The caption (141; photo on 140, Chapter 6) says: "Fascination with Elizabethan history and embroidery led Jack Robinson to take up blackwork, explore the intricate patterns and then devise his own, as in this book cushion, 1992."

I really love the diamond windowpane border, the way the gold sparkles against the black, and the scattering of seed pearls throughout the embroidery. No flower seems to be exactly alike in shape or filling! It's just so elegant and striking :)

In the previous eras, needlework was fairly strictly limited to the popular culture of the time, with fads that came and went. But the Twentieth-Century Embroiderer has the option to break all those old bonds as well as honor them, and so Beck spends the final chapter with new works inspired by old techniques. This colourful "Passion for Tulips" feltwork by Jennifer Wilson (1994, page 153) is an example of this freedom.

It is so easy to take our creative impulses for granted! Although this book is very encouraging and inspiring, reading through the various styles really brings home how important popular culture was to needlework. You did whatever was "in", whether you liked it - or were good at it! - or not. And then the next fad came along, and you abandoned your old work as being of no value and moved on to the newest craze.

The accomplishment was in the act of creating, not so much the actual creation. It's absurd to think today that ladies in the Victorian era once took up certain styles of crafting just to show off their wrists to potential suitors! Or that needlework was just another dreary "domestic art" one had to master in order to wed and live well.

On the other hand, it is encouraging to imagine these same ladies cozily crafting around a parlour in the evenings, chatting and laughing with friends while they worked at their needlework or crochet or knitting, proud to show off their skills to one another :) As bloggers, perhaps that is what we do too, only now we are free to create whatever we will, whenever we please. It is a privilege we should cherish!

And the final thing that caught my eye is this illustration by Paddy Killer towards the end of the book (page 154, Chapter 6). It's an imagining of The Embroiderer's Story - and Beck's other books - as a searchable digital resource. Wouldn't that be cool?!


Karen said...

Aurelia, this is such an interesting and thorough examination of a beautiful book! My favorite page is the one showing the Berlin work, I'm just crazy about Berlin work designs. Thank you for this review, it's so good to be able to see inside a book like this!

Karen said...

I love flipping through historical embroidery books and this is definitely one I hope I get a chance to flip through some day. The reproduction blackwork pillow is really beautiful.

I never knew that ladies would try to show off their wrists by working on needlework. How funny that seems now lol. Casting your WIPs aside for the next latest trend seems like such a waste. All of that work!!

rosey175 said...

A bit late to the party, but this is a fabulous-looking book. I love reading 'history of' kind of books and this looks right up my alley! I hope our local library has a copy because I totally need another distraction from actually stitching! :) Great review~

Aurelia Eglantine said...

So sorry this reply is late, but thank you all so much for the wonderful comments!!! It makes me incredibly happy that you enjoyed the review enough to want to actually read the book ;) That's amazing! I've been reading some interesting things lately and will try to share some more stitchy books soon ;)