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Nonfiction November Week 3: The Guild of Exhausted Embroiderers

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Nonfiction November, as you know, is hosted by several bloggers, with Week 3: (November 15-19) – Be the expert/Ask the expert/Become the expert hosted by Veronica at The Thousand Book Project:


In week 3 we are asked to suggest three or more books on a subject of which we know something about, or put out a call for titles, or make our own list of titles on a particular nonfiction topic.

I don’t consider myself an expert at anything very much,  but many years ago I studied embroidery and collected a good many books on the subject which now lie dusty and abandoned on a shelf somewhere.  Most of them date back from the 1980s and so are perhaps dated in terms imagery.  But embroidery was always an historic art and while I was leafing through these books to write a post I found myself wondering how much has changed.

Back in those heady days, we embroiderers  were excited that our art had  grown up and left home, leaving behind  images of  neat little Victorian samplers forced upon bored children to indicate their awareness of the correct order of the letters of the alphabet;  more particularly, leaving behind the days of cheap (mostly female) labour when seamstresses would wreck their eyesight for fourteen hours a day earning a couple of shillings a week to applique complex designs onto (often male) robes of office.  This ending of this slave labour was, for society as a whole a Very Good Thing.  No more guild of exhausted embroiderers.

But still, embroidery had a hard time modernising.

It belonged to an earlier age of plentiful cheap labour and fought to elevate itself from ultra-skilled craft to art form.  By the time I became involved in the scene, in the 1980s, it was a punishingly expensive hobby which struggled to find a role (apart perhaps from quilting) amongst mainstream punters. It was fabulous fun to do of course but I was young,  had young children, needed to earn a living and life got in the way.  Back then, in order to learn goldwork, we used gold and silver thread – the real thing  – the cheap stuff never looked the same and broke easily.  Back then there were wonderful shops which supplied all the embroiderers needs which you could browse for hours and online didn’t exist.

Embroidery was an applied art form that required endless patience and the best eyesight to put a hawk to shame.    Those of my colleagues who were talented enough to try to sell their work (I wasn’t) could never hope to recoup their costs on a piece which required expensive materials and which they may have spent months working on.

True there was machine embroidery which produced pleasing modernist effects, but you couldn’t use a sewing machine to fix 10,000 sequins to the train of a royal wedding dress as the Emanuels did for Diana, Princess of Wales at her wedding to Prince Charles in 1981.  Considering we live in a modern and (hopefully for most of us) democratic age, embroidery is neither a modern nor a democratic art.  It is an ancient and historic art which requires thousands of hours of work by hand,  to which exposure for most of us is generally through a glass case at the V&A.  At one stage, the Royal School of Needlework in the UK was housed in Hampton Court Palace  – which said it all really.  For all I know it may still be there.

Someone who tried to change all this was a designer called Kaffe Fassett.   A sort of early days Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen, Fassett was everywhere during the 1980s and 1990s, on TV, writing books, teaching, demonstrating, rushing from pillar to post, trying to democratise the world of applied art.   His extraordinary sense of colour, collages, needlepoint, knitting – you name it – took the design world by storm.

This leads to my first week 3 book which is Fassett’s Glorious Interiors (1995).  Aptly titled, it shows  magpie worthy treasure troves of interiors, although perhaps a little innocent and artisanal.  But that was the whole point.    In the introduction to the book Fassett, who grew up in California,  writes:

“Ourside of our circle was, I knew a world where people had their houses ‘done’. I was very dismissive of grand, expensive, interiors because of the underlying feeling of nervousness lest one should make a mark on the new wallpaper, spill tea on the antique carpet, or break a rare porcealain.  There was, I recall, a sterile beigeness to the most expensive of these places that chilled me to the core.”

He credits his grandmother with developing his own ‘fantasy and fun’ aesthetic as well as travels to Europe and Morocco.

Within its sumptuous covers there were many fine photographs and instructions on exactly how to achieve the cushions, rag rugs,tufted carpet etc in your own home.  I would love to know how many people actually succeeded in copying one of these designs.  I personally had a yearning to attempt the turkey rag rug (shown below), but never plucked up the courage (pun, sorry).

  1. Turkey Rag Rug: An illustration from Kaffe Fassett’s Glorious Interiors (1995)

My next embroidery book is called The Embroiderer’s Garden by Thomasina Beck.   Very different from the turkeys, overblown roses, profusion of rioting colours in Fassett’s book, Beck’s inspiration comes from the well mannered topiary of the knot garden and the parterre;  the photographs in the book show the work of artists who have produced pieces based on original garden designs, some dating back to the l5th century.    Much like gardening itself, embroidery was ever the subject of heated discussions about whether it was ‘art’ or ‘craft’.  One of my favourite images from Beck’s book is ‘The Cold Frame’ a piece of contemporary stump work.  This is a technique which uses small pieces of padding beneath areas of stitching – which are then applied over the top –  to give a raised and three dimensional effect to the design.

Image is taken from a piece called ‘The Cold Frame’ by Barbara Hirst, in Thomasina Beck ‘The Embroiderers Garden’


My third and final book is The Art of the Needle (1988) by Jan Beaney.  The earliest of the three books,  Beaney was a name to conjure with in the embroidery world when I was studying (I’m sure she still is, but I’m not involved any more) and some of the design ideas now appear quite dated.   Beaney reminds us that its not just about the stitches, of course there are numerous effects that can be garnered from manipulating fabric such as by dying, printing and or quilting  before considering stitching.   Sensibly she advises us to match our fabrics to the proposed function of the item:

” If the article is to be worn and laundered, the material should be colourfast, washable and durable.”

Sounding not unlike Mrs. Beeton.

Embroidery is a massive subject with an entire history of its own; there are whole books – probably entire libraries of books –  given over to individual techniques such as Goldwork, Blackwork, Stumpwork, Crewelwork.

What are the latest books on this subject? Maybe there are textile artists and silk painters out there or someone who is just interested. I would love to know.

6 responses to “Nonfiction November Week 3: The Guild of Exhausted Embroiderers”

  1. When I embarked on learning tapestry many years ago I was browsing in the library and came across a Kaffe Fassett book. They were a million years away from the twee designs I saw everywhere else. His eye for colour was extraordinary. Did I ever give his patterns a try?? My skills were completely inadequate for them I’m afraid

  2. This was lovely, thank you for taking me back. I did a lot of cross stitch back in the day – I used to buy French magazines because they had more attractive designs, quirky houses and lovely country images as opposed to horrendously twee things. I started a blackwork sampler of houses through the ages that nearly destroyed me (the Tudor House, arghhh!) and remains unfinished, and somewhere I have a half-done map of Kent! I did used to love doing it and loved the shops, too, there was one here in Birmingham on Needless Alley, of all places. I do know someone who does fabric art but it’s more weaving and applique and she doesn’t have an online presence.


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