The Art of the Needle

Excerpted from Winterthur Magazine, Winter 1998 - 1999

I am not adept with a needle and thread. Admittedly, I have abandoned dresses and slacks hanging in my closet, unworn but not forgotten, because a button fell off or a hem came loose. I do not own a sewing kit. Intrigued and ready to disclose my inadequacy at sewing, I anticipated my morning interview with Winterthur guide Carol Baker, who was introduced to the museum's needlework collection as a volunteer more than 30 years ago. The collection became her passion when she began research in the field, and today she gives two-hour, in-depth tours that focus on the origins and styles of the craft. In only a few moments after we met, I realized that needlework has very little to do with sewing and was immediately enchanted by the history of the art.

Needlework isn't about threading and mending. The fine, intricate stitches, colorful samplers and detailed silk embroideries relate stories about the past and about the women who created them. Collectors search for remnants of a tradition that flourished for about 150 years during the late 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries and cherish their collections not solely for their beauty and worth, but also for the images of history and glimpses into a life reflected by each signed and dated piece.

"In this field one learns about the history of early education in the United States," explains Amy Finkel, co-owner of M. Finkel & Daughter, the renowned Philadelphia antique shop and a leading dealer of needlework. Unlike other antiques that were manufactured or created as consumer goods, needlework was primarily created for the family; it was not intended to be bought or sold. "It is almost as if you can look into a mirror and get to know the maker's families," Finkel continued. This personal aspect lures collectors.

Plain and fancy were the two forms of needlework. "Basic, or plain, sewing was an essential skill for young women, who needed to learn the discipline and patience of wielding the needle to make their family's clothing and linens," Baker explained. Fancy needlework was much more decorative and usually the work of young, affluent women who had leisure time to undertake multiyear projects such as a decorative crewel bed set. Not surprisingly, most surviving needlework isfancy. Decorative pieces were more often carefully preserved and passed on through generations than plain work.

Whether a sampler, crewel embroidery, silk on silk embroidery, canvas work or quilt, most needlework was fabricated for a specific purpose in the early American home. Samplers were a schoolgirl's first effort at needlework. Preparing themselves for the day when they would initial linens for their own houses, young girls practiced by making a marking sampler, where they worked their alphabet and numerals onto the fabric. Most samplers included the name of the person who worked the piece and, generally, the date.

Seventeenth-century samplers were unframed and served as records of stitches and patterns. Eighteenth-century samplers became more elaborate and were framed, as families proudly displayed their daughters' work to show they had been educated. Girls between seven and ten years old went to needlework schools to learn this skill, which not only enabled them to decorate clothing and household objects, but also provided an acceptable means of earning an income as teachers of embroidery or seamstresses, should it later become necessary.

The variety of needlework available today allows collectors the flexibility to make acquisitions on all levels. An elaborate $30,000 sampler may be a collector's most important purchase; however, a simple, $2,000 sampler can still be considered a significant acquisition.

Collectors can sometimes identify the origin of a sampler by the region in which the maker lived and the school she attended. There were very strong indigenous regional characteristics portrayed in the needlework, identifiable to a specific school by the repetition of similar motifs. Some teachers may have copied published prints or English needlework onto canvas for their students to needlepoint. Collectors seek pieces that are in excellent condition, have a strong visual appeal, represent their geographic location, and have documentation about their origins.

Some of the most decorative samplers were not developed until the early 19th century. By 1845, ideas about education had evolved, and women were encouraged to seek a broader education. As a result, most needlework created after 1880 may not be considered as valuable as works of earlier periods.

In the past 10 to 20 years, collectors have become more educated about the art of needlework, thanks to excellent research in the field and the publication of significant books on the subject. Betty Ring's two volume book, Girlhood Embroidery: American Samplers and Pictorial Needlework, 1650-1850, (now out of print) is an important resource for collectors. Susan Swan, retired curator of textiles at Winterthur, illustrates in her book, Plain & Fancy: American Women and Their Needlework, 1650-1850, needlework's trends, techniques, and dates. Her research is derived from Winterthur's collection more than 700 pieces of American needlework made before 1865.

Samplers of all types, including the marking and the family record samplers, and silk embroideries depicting biblical, allegorical, mourning, or mythological scenes, are popular among collectors today. Needlework enthusiasts make their purchases by attending auctions, visiting antique shows, and developing relationships with specialist dealers.

Baker encourages needlework collectors to learn all they can, not only by reading, but also by visiting Winterthur's wonderful collection and using it as a resource. It is not uncommon to find that a sampler has been enhanced by the seller by, adding either dates or color to the design

Becoming familiar with the different styles, ages, conditions, and types of material used enables even amateur collectors to recognize valuable pieces.

These stitches in time are prized as decorative arts objects, and also because they open windows onto women's lives in the past.

by Margaret Gilmour

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