Agecroft Hall: Discover 17th Century England in Richmond
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Embroidery in Early Modern England  

 

          

Our collection at Agecroft Hall boasts an impressive array of embroidered objects. These objects, which are regularly rotated in an effort to preserve them for future generations, include a sampler, purses, gloves, bed covers, and more. This variety of embroidered objects leads to the question—why was embroidery seemingly so important to those in early modern England?

Embroidery has a long history. What concerns us, though, began simply with joining strips of fabric together—fabrics only came in narrow widths and to get a workable width, they were stitched together (Hughes, 16).  Embroidered pictorial scenes were also very useful for teaching biblical stories, such as the Sacrifice of Issac (below), in a church setting. Many people were illiterate and the embroidered scenes were used to illustrate church teachings as well. Biblical scenes would continue to be a common theme among embroidered objects for centuries.

 

By the late sixteenth century, embroidery was favored by many for adorning household decorations, garments, and even the ceremonial garments and decorations used at court (Watt). Young girls were taught how to embroider, although the extent of a girl’s skills depended on her socioeconomic status. A lower class girl would be taught the utilitarian stitches necessary for running a household, whereas a girl of a higher socioeconomic standing would be taught more detailed and decorative stitches as she would have more time to devote to decorative embroidery (Epstein, 5-9). That being said, most everyone knew how to sew and embroider—men and women, adults and children. It may have only been a basic understanding, but it was enough to mend a hole or stitch up a hem.

Domestic embroidery was completed mainly by the women of the household whereas commercial embroidery was done by men. Any embroidered object that was purchased—pillows, tapestries, rugs, etc.—was made by a man. It is believed many of the finer embroidered goods that survive from this time period, including our embroidered portrait of Charles I (below), are professional, commercial pieces of embroidery that were stitched by professional embroiderers, who were all men.

 

Embroidery was very important in early modern England. Like many other things, it signified wealth, a commercially produced clothes and household decorations were luxury items. Embroidery was also a way to pass the time—it combated the notion that “idle hands are the Devil’s playthings.” Embroidered objects also brightened and warmed up homes that were dark and drafty. Please come by Agecroft for a tour to see which embroidered objects are on display today!

 

 

 

Sources:

Epstein, Kathleen. British Embroidery: Curious Works from the Seventeenth Century, (Williamsburg, VA: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1998).

Hughes, Therle. English Domestic Needlework,  (London: Abbey Fine Arts).

Watt, Melinda, “English Embroidery of the Late Tudor and Stuart Eras,” in Heibrunn Timeline of Art History, (NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000--) < http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/broi/hd_broi.htm >