Plain and fancy needlework turns period textiles into museum pieces.
BY SUSAN KHALJE
SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE
Fortunately, those of us who love the needle arts have an enormous history to inspire us. Whether in books, museums or in our own treasured collections, these items from the past speak loud and clear.
I always seize the chance to examine period textiles, so I was thrilled to be able to look at some of the vintage linens in the collection of Hampton Mansion, just north of Baltimore. The mansion was built at the end of the 1700's and is now managed by the National Parks Service. It's textiles are beautifully cared for by Debbie Patterson, and she and I had great fun choosing and examining a number of vintage linens to highlight during a talk I gave recently at the mansion.
Needlework in the 1800's was divided into two categories -- plain work and fancy work. Plain work consisted of mending, simple garment construction and the marking of the household's linens. Towels, for example, were labeled and numbered -- sometimes quite specifically. For example, an embroidered "22 Glassware" would identify both the number of a towel and the use to which it would be put. Fancy work included a range of decorative embroidery techniques, needlepoint and samplers and indicated the needle worker's education, social status and leisure time activities.
The earliest item we examined was a dear little handkerchief from the early 1800's -- woven from the finest, sheerest linen you can imagine ("handkerchief" linen, of course). Apart from a small and beautifully worked family crest on one corner, what caught my eye was the incredibly fine drawn work around the handkerchief's perimeter. I didn't count the stitches (I would have needed a magnifying glass), but there must have been 20 to 25 per inch -- such fine detail and such care was amazing to see.
There were a number of towels; some of which were woven with what is called the diaper weave. It's a textured weave and, considering that Turkish toweling (the loopy, absorbent weave that we now associate with towels, wasn't developed until much later, a towel with any texture was better than a towel with no texture.
I fell in love with a beautiful bolster cover -- a long rectangle of linen I can picture proudly spread out over a bed's pillows. The monogram was large, elaborate and graceful, containing three beautifully interwoven letters. Worked in the satin stitch under the monogram was the name of the mansion, Hampton, was embroidered. What an elegant item to put on a bed!
One of the highlights of the collection was a set of tambour-embroidered bed hangings. A set of reproductions is currently in use (well, it is during the summer months; a heavier reproduction set in cotton chintz is used in the cooler months). I've seen the originals, and the reproduction set, hand-made is France, is a worthy reproduction.
Tambour work is done on an embroidery frame (the name comes from the French "tambour," which means "drum"), and the set-up certainly reminds one of a drum, or a tambourine. The fabric -- in this case, a sheer, loosely-woven cotton muslin -- is held tautly in the embroidery hoop.
Stitch in time
The right hand holds the tambour hook above the fabric, and pokes down through the fabric to hook onto the decorative thread, which is guided from under the frame with the left hand. The thread loop is pulled back up to the surface of the fabric and forms a chain with subsequent loops. It's far quicker than creating the same stitch with a needle and thread, and I can imagine that the rhythm that an embroiderer would develop when using the tool would create nicely even stitches.
I thank those at Hampton Mansion for allowing me to lose myself in these wonderful textiles; it's very easy, and rewarding, to feel such a connection with the women who created and embellished them.
XSusan Khalje is the author of "Bridal Couture -- Fine Sewing Techniques for Wedding Gowns and Evening Wear." For more information, visit www.SusanKhalje.-com or www.diynetwork.com.)