A little red and white

I made a little red work sampler for my Ellen Mahon-inspired sampler book. Ellen herself didn’t make a sampler in this style for her book, probably because it wasn’t yet a popular form of needlework. Red work samplers began to be made by girls at the Bristol Orphanage Schools during the 1860s-1880s. Their work is very fine, often around 30 cross stitches per inch, and the range of original designs is astonishing.

I drew some of the motifs after looking at the work of the Bristol orphanage girls, particularly this example by Mary Jeffries, and I stitched the sample with one strand of DMC thread on 22-count hardanger fabric. The stitched area measures about 5″ x 6″.

red work embroidery sampler

I haven’t done counted cross stitch since the 1990s, and I have to say I wasn’t much looking forward to making this, but I did enjoy it in the end. Unlike the plain alphabet marking samplers, which would have been made to practise marking household linens and clothing, these designs would have been purely decorative.

red work embroidery sample

I can totally understand that plain sewing would have been an essential skill to learn in the days before we had sewing machines, and I can see how decorative embroidery would have individualised garments and linen. Having spent many hours on this sample, I can also see that sewing a single repetitive stitch of the same size in the same colour over and over again may incidentally have functioned as a means of keeping girls still and quiet and out of the way. You have to concentrate in order to ensure the correct placement and size of stitches, and you need relative quiet in order to focus and count. This is fine, and quite enjoyable, for introverts like me, but I can imagine that extraverted girls might have become bored or frustrated by this kind of activity.

red work embroidery sample, single DMC thread on 22-count hardanger fabric (detail)

A Little Dressmaking

I thought I would have a go at a little dress for my 19th-century-style sampler book. Ellen Mahon’s sampler book contains some truly adorable little dresses:

Samples of dressmaking in Ellen Mahon’s sampler book, V and A Collections

My version has turned out to be a little more three-dimensional than either of these, but I will flatten it later when I attach it to a page. I haven’t decided yet whether I will use paper or cloth pages to display my samples – there are advantages and disadvantages to both methods, but I’ve got a lot more to make so I don’t need to decide yet.

Dress in progress

I decided on a vaguely 1850s-style flounced day dress, using some vintage sari silk fabric and some fine silk thread. The Workwoman’s Guide is quite sketchy on dress patterns, and tends to stick to basic instructions for children’s clothes and plain dresses for servants and the working classes. The anonymous author says that making as much as you can at home will save money, but “it is strongly recommended to all those who can afford it, to have their best dresses invariably made by a mantua-maker, as those which are cut out at home seldom fit so comfortably, or look so well, as when made by persons in constant practice.” I had to make a few concessions, but it has turned out more or less as I intended.

1850s style day dress

There was no way I could make it wearable, but it’s doing a fairly convincing impression. Under the subtitle ‘Order is the best economy of time’, The Workwoman’s Guide advises, very sagely, “it is of great consequence that dresses should be carefully and neatly put away, as their preservation depends much on the attention paid to this: a gown smoothly folded, and laid by directly it is taken off, will last half as long again as one that is thrown about upon dirty chairs, or tumbled and creased in the wrapping up.” I have taken her advice and placed it in the box with the other samples.

A little needlepoint (2)

Another sample of needlepoint for my Ellen Mahon style sampler book. This one is taken from a design by Sarah Bland (1810-1905), who created many designs for canvas work and embroidery. You can read a little more about her here, and you can see more of her work at the V and A Collections here.

Details from a needlepoint sampler by Sarah Bland, V and A Collections

The great thing about antique canvas work and samplers is that it’s relatively easy to replicate the designs and motifs by zooming in to a photograph and transposing the stitches onto graph paper. I really like this little stylised flower motif:

Needlepoint sample based on a design by Sarah Bland

It isn’t an exact copy, but it’s near enough. I like the idea that women were designing their own work despite the fact that embroidery patterns were commercially available in vast numbers. To me that suggests a recognition of self-worth and individualism, finding a voice through which to express a lived experience. Needle and thread often seems to me more like writing than drawing. Hand stitches in particular are as characteristic as hand writing, whether they depict text, shapes, or abstract patterns and lines.

I worked this one very small as well, like the last one – single strand of DMC cotton thread on 40-count silk gauze:

Sampler shirt

Of all the examples of fine needlework in Ellen Mahon’s sampler book, it’s the tiny clothes I find most fascinating. One of my favourite stories as a child was ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’ because I loved the idea of making tiny clothes for elves.

Here is a page showing Ellen’s example of a basic shift and a more complex shirt:

Page from Ellen Mahon’s sampler book

The shirt in particular is impossibly detailed. I have emailed the V and A to ask them for the dimensions of this book but haven’t had a response yet, so I can’t tell how big (or small) these examples might be. As I mentioned in my last post, it is often difficult to get a sense of scale just from looking at pictures – this book might be foolscap or bigger, or it might be much smaller than that and more like a pocket exercise-book. I’d like to know, just out of interest.

I’ve been using The Workwoman’s Guide as my main source for nineteenth-century sewing. Written by ‘A Lady’ and published in 1838, it has a baffling amount of information about what, and how, women were expected to sew. Most daily needlework would have been functional rather than decorative. I am astounded every time I think about how much sewing there would have been for a household before people had access to sewing machines. Every item in the house made of cloth would have been cut and sewn by hand – so that’s everyone’s clothes, towels, sheets, curtains, table linen, bed covers and quilts. The Workwoman’s Guide gives cutting instructions for six shirts, as it’s more efficient to cut and sew six shirts than one. That’s about 22 yards of fabric, all to be cut by hand.

Plate 17 from The Workwoman’s Guide, showing cutting layouts for shirts

Measurements are given in nails (a nail is 2.5 inches), and the book lists the nineteen useful parts of a shirt. Apart from the body, sleeves, cuffs and collar, there are various kinds of gusset, plus binders and shoulder straps.

It was therefore with quite a sense of trepidation that I embarked on an example of my own.

miniature shirt in progress with cuffs pinned on

In the end my poor effort only has 7 parts – a back, a front, two sleeves, two cuffs and a collar. I used a bit of vintage cotton sheet and in this scale it looks and feels like fine wool or flannel, so definitely a labouring man’s garment rather than anything a gentleman would consider suitable. The sleeves are rather too voluminous, on reflection, and the body is probably too short, but as a sample, and as a learning experience, it’s as good as it’s going to get. I did manage to get a few little pintucks into the front, and I found some very tiny beads that will do as buttons.

Cotton shirt sample, about 3″ x 4″

Don’t zoom in, it doesn’t bear close inspection. It is kind of cute though.

A Little Needlepoint (1)

A few weeks ago I made a small sample of needlepoint for my sampler book inspired by the 1850s one made by Ellen Mahon (here). She has a couple of examples of needlepoint, but I’m making a few more. I’m not setting out to make a copy of her book; I’m just seeing this exercise as an opportunity to try some of the techniques learned by my nineteenth-century predecessors.

I have a copy of the excellent Samplers, by Rebecca Scott, which I’ve used for reference. The design below appears at least twice in the book – as a motif on a cross-stitched sampler and also as a knitted motif on a pincushion. This suggests that this design was probably commercially available during the nineteenth century. By enlarging the photos I’ve been able to make an approximation of the charted design:

I do like a challenge, so I stitched the design on 40-count silk gauze, with a single strand of DMC embroidery thread.

It looks huge here but in real life it is very small. A sense of scale is often hard to convey in the virtual world. I find that very interesting.