52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s, Week 27: Embroidery

Thursday 1 May 2014

Four weeks ago, we described how to make a linen shift using the directions in Robert Byfield’s Sectum: the Universal Directory in the Art of Cutting, published in 1825. This week, we return to the fashions of the 1820s for a look at embroidery.

Example of a simpe shift.
Although its cut is very simple, this linen shift from the collection of the Museum of Fine Art, Boston (accession no. 49.900), is decorated with bands of embroidery around its neckline and sleeves.

While researching early 19th century shifts, I came across a linen shift in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston very much like the one described in Sectum, except that it has bands of whitework embroidery and drawn thread work around the neckline and sleeves. Although the photographs on the MFA’s website are not detailed enough to copy an embroidery pattern, I thought the overall effect was quite pretty and that embroidery would be a relatively simple way to dress up an otherwise plain garment.

Whitework (embroidery executed with white thread on a white ground) can be found in many traditions around the world. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whitework produced in Scotland and Ireland, characterized by floral motifs worked with fine cotton thread, typically in satin stitch, stem stitch, and needlepoint in-filling, was some of the most widely consumed for apparel.

The table of contents for a typical issue of Ackermann's Repository. (Click to view the full page)
The table of contents for a typical issue of Ackermann’s Repository (St Andrews copy at rper AP4.R3A2). (Click to view the full page)

To find an embroidery pattern for my shift, I turned to The Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics (often shortened to Ackermann’s Repository). Rudolph Ackermann was a publisher and bookseller whose business, “The Repository of Arts”, functioned as a shop, gallery, circulating library, and social centre. Ackermann’s Repository was a monthly magazine published from 1809 to 1829 for ladies of leisure, with each issue containing short fiction, poems, music and theater reviews, informative articles, society gossip, and a description of the latest fashions in London and Paris. Each issue was accompanied by two fashion plates and, in most issues, another plate of patterns for needlework.

Interestingly, the needlework patterns in some issues are labelled “Muslin Pattern”. Unlike the cheap, hard-wearing cottons we call muslin today, when introduced into Europe in the 1600s, “muslin” denoted a soft, white, plain-weave cotton cloth produced in India where it was possible to manufacture particularly fine, delicate fabrics due to the constant, intense humidity which eased the stress of the spinning and weaving processes on the fibers. Although muslin was used for petticoats, aprons, and kerchiefs in the 17th century, its light, airy quality and soft drape was ideally suited to the classically-inspired dresses of the early 19th century. Although by the 1820s muslin’s dominance of fashionable dress had passed its peak, nearly every issue of Ackermann’s Repository makes at least some mention of the latest trends in muslin gowns.

1820s Fashion plates from Ackermann's Repository featuring muslin gowns.
1820s Fashion plates from Ackermann’s Repository featuring muslin gowns.

In the April 1825 issue (the same year that Byfield’s Sectum was published), there is a needlework pattern that forms a band narrow enough to use as an edging around necklines and sleeves, and that seemed simple enough to be executed by a novice embroiderer.

Muslin Pattern" from the April 1825 issue of Ackermann's Repository.
“Muslin Pattern” from the April 1825 issue of Ackermann’s Repository.

The linen that I used for the shift was thin enough that when placed on top of a printout, it was possible to see the pattern through it, so I set about tracing the pattern around the neckline.

Tracing the pattern onto the linen. Because the fabric tended to move a bit during tracing, I didn’t mark the position of each individual leaf, but just drew them in free-hand as I was ready to begin embroidering each motif.
Tracing the pattern onto the linen. Because the fabric tended to move a bit during tracing, I didn’t mark the position of each individual leaf, but just drew them in free-hand as I was ready to begin embroidering each motif.

Although muslin embroidery would typically be done in fine thread, shifts have to be able to withstand frequent washing, so I used a sturdy size 30 crochet cotton for my embroidery. Not only was it conveniently already in my sewing basket, the heavier thread also stands out well from the surface of the fabric, which is important when embroidering in white on a white background.

No text accompanies the pattern to indicate which stitches should be used, but stem stitch and satin stitch were typical of whitework embroidery in the early 19th century, so I used stem stitch for the hearts and arches in the design, and satin stitch for the leaves. For guidance on how to make these stitches, I turned to another book from our collection, Embroidery, or The Craft of the Needle by W. G. Paulson Townsend (St Andrews copy at r TT770.T7).

From Embroidery, or The Craft of the Needle by W. G. Paulson Townsend (London: Truslove, Hanson & Comba, 1899. St Andrews copy at r TT770.T7).
From Embroidery, or The Craft of the Needle by W. G. Paulson Townsend (London: Truslove, Hanson & Comba, 1899. St Andrews copy at r TT770.T7).

As the embroidery textbook says, satin stitch “is apparently the most simple of stitches, but is really quite one of the hardest to do well; the edge must be so accurate, the stitches lie so evenly… that it taxes at first the patience of the worker.” The first few pattern repeats that I attempted came out very wobbly indeed.

A messy first attempt at following the embroidery pattern.
A messy first attempt at following the embroidery pattern.

Because of the thickness of the thread, the leaves turned out a bit chunkier than on the pattern. To prevent the design from becoming too crowded, I found it necessary to trace one less leaf in each pattern repeat. With practice, it became easier to make the stitches neatly, but even after finishing 19 pattern repeats, it still took me nearly an hour to finish each one. Although someone with more experience could almost certainly work more quickly, even a relatively simple project like this one represents a considerable investment of time and energy. Unfortunately, that means that as of my writing this, I’m unable to post a photo of the finished product, but here is the closest I have:

Detail of the embroidery.
Detail of the embroidered shift.

Although my stitching is quite chunky when compared with the whitework embroidery of the 18th century, I’m quite pleased with the overall effect and will enjoy continuing to work on it in the weeks to come.

A fuller view of the embroidered shift.
The overall effect!


– CM

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5 thoughts on "52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s, Week 27: Embroidery"

  • joycecormie
    Thursday 1 May 2014, 11.34am

    Most interesting - well done on the work you did. I have a christening gown of that vintage and fitting very much the methology described. (Could let you see it if you wish!)

  • Sue Millard
    Thursday 1 May 2014, 3.42pm

    the trick with working with a hoop is to have one hand above and one below so the needle passes directly at 90 degrees through the fabric. You can have the fabric quite taut then and the stitches are easy to make even.

  • Carricklass
    Friday 2 May 2014, 11.34pm

    Really interesting blog. Well done - a fine piece of research and lovely finished piece.

  • […] The increased participation and the passion have both been essential, because the Historical How-To’s have represented a considerable investment of time on the part of everyone involved. A single project could easily take over 20 hours, not including finding an appropriate source within our collections or doing background research and actually writing the post. The bulk of this work was done at home, in evenings and on weekends and around family commitments, and sometimes during holidays. People also willingly invested their own money in tools, ingredients, or specialist supplies: the tea kitty covered some of it but by no means all. So it has also been 52 weeks of incredible commitment; yes, it’s been fun, but it reflects a huge amount of hard work and dedication. I just want to stress what a privilege it is to work with people who, in order to generate posts for the blog, are prepared to lug a camera lucida on a trip home to Canada, or persuade their spouse to give up a weekend to travelling round Perthshire retracing the footsteps of a honeymoon couple from the 1850s, or spend hours of their free time patiently embroidering around the neckline of a shift. […]

  • chaik
    Saturday 14 August 2021, 7.36pm

    I do want to thank everyone who participated in this historical how-to. I’ve just come across it, via Pinterest, years after the original events. Thank you so much. I heartily look forward to studying all 52 weeks of how-tos, and appreciate the time and energy that must have gone into researching and recreating the material goods.


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