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Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Embroidery through the years

On now at the National Gallery of Victoria is a stunning little exhibition called Exquisite Threads. It traces the role of embroidery in English life from the 1600s through to the 1900s. Split into three sections – education, fashion and home – it traces the changing styles and techniques over the period. It was so interesting to see how stitches became much bigger – moving from tiny, very detailed embroidery to larger wool needlepoint – as women had less time to dedicate to the craft and more mass-produced items became available at a much cheaper cost.

The first section was education, and contained mostly samplers for learning the basic techniques. The sampler below was stitched by a seven-year-old. My niece is seven and I just can't imagine her having the patience for it. Mind you, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have the patience for most of the work in this exhibition. The time it must have taken to stitch them is unimaginable.

Once the students had perfected their samplers – which became ongoing references for techniques and patterns – they were allowed to move onto pictorial works such as bible covers or caskets. The designs were mostly drawn by professional designers and then stitched by the students. Being proficient in needlework was one of the criteria against which young women were judged – along with music and dancing, but it was also a means of self-expression and the designs could widen a woman's discourse beyond her domestic surrounds.
The piece below was one of my absolute favourites. It was a man's waistcoat in the fashion section. Unfortunately the very dull light and position of the glass case made it impossible to get a decent photo of the complete garment. Apparently these expensive pieces were the height of fashion during the 18th century amongst the wealthy. The embroidery was done professionally on flat pieces. These 'patterns', as they were known, would then have been taken to a tailor for assembly according to the client's own measurements. Even the buttons are all hand-embroidered – just beautiful.
The piece below is a 'stomacher' – also in the fashion section. I had no idea these were a separate piece of clothing, but it makes sense when you look at the detail that's gone into stitching it and how it could be worn over and over with multiple dresses. It's the panel that fills in the front opening of a woman's gown.
The pillowcase below was in the home section. It shows the change in embroidery style from the heavy detail of the Jacobean era to the lighter, more open naturalistic style of the early eighteenth century. Still, there's no way I'd be letting anyone sleep on that pillowcase if I'd stitched it! The large pieces in the home section were all done by professional embroiderers and consisted of bedcovers, valances, pelmets and bed curtains.
Below, we're moving into the 1900s and you can see how the needlepoint would have taken much less time to complete. The top item made me laugh. It's a kit you could buy where all the detailed stitching and beadwork was completed for you and all you had to do was fill in the background, in this case the red stitching!
The exhibition runs until mid-July and it's free. There are also two really interesting videos as you walk around, that show the process of conservation but also highlight a few of the techniques that are no longer commonly used.  If you're in Melbourne in the next little while it really is worth visiting.

1 comment:

  1. I loved it. It's only small but well worth a look.

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