Thursday, June 16, 2011

Embroidered Samplers and Whitework at the V&A

This morning, going through my photos, I found some of my visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London a few months ago. The photos were all rather dark, but I have finally worked out how to improve them - thanks to PhotoScape, free software! Unfortunately the embroidery was difficult to photograph behind heavy glass, but you do get an idea of the fineness of the stitchery.

The cabinets in the Textile Study Room at the V&A had some real embroidered treasures. Again I was very glad to have Rod with me to help lift the heavily-glassed work out of the storage cabinets for a closer look. I was searching for examples of Dresden Lace. I found a few pieces and also examples of the very similar-looking Danish Tonder work too. 

I didn't think of taking along a magnifier so I missed some of the finer details I'd wanted to see - like how close the couching stitches are on the Tonder work outlines and perhaps identify some of the pulled work stitches. The base muslin is so fine, probably around 100 or more threads to the inch(!). A magnifier is definitely necessary to see the incredibly fine detail.

Danish Tonder embroidery, 18th Century. The outlines are couched and the background is entirely filled with pulled work.

The next piece intrigued me. Its an exquisitely worked 18th century English whitework border. The border is only about 7 or 8cm wide but just look at the many and perfect repeats of that 'pulled work' block pattern in the centre scallop, each one possibly over just 4 threads.

The label indicates that this piece is 'drawn thread work', but I did wonder about that. From what I could see it looked rather like drawn fabric work, or the term I prefer 'pulled work'. It seems unlikely to me that it has threads cut and withdrawn which is the defining characteristic of drawn thread, but then I'm just speculating.

Also, because I was on a quest to find Dresden Lace, I was amused by the irony that it had been bequeathed by an Edmond Dresden and I couldn't help wondering if the surname was in some way linked, but no, it seems that Edmond Dresden was a great British philanthropist and businessman and not an embroiderer.

Although on this visit to the V&A I intended to focus on whitework embroideries, I couldn't resist having a look at Jane Bostocke's sampler. It is like a magnet to me at the V&A.

The sampler commemorates the birth of Jane Bostocke's young cousin Alice Lee, born 'in the afternoon of 23 November 1596'.
The photo of Jane Bostocke's sampler on the V&A website is much clearer. Just click on it there to enlarge it.

Jane's sampler is the oldest surviving, dated British sampler. I marvel at the sense that we can communicate across that space in time and learn a little bit about her through her embroidery. For example, if you look carefully, you'll notice that the line under the family crests near the top has her name and is dated 1598, but why do you think that only the letters 'Bostoc' are in a silver metallic thread? Did she run out of thread or just change her mind about using a silver thread? Or perhaps she was just experimenting?

It's inspiring to think of her embroidering the sampler in 1598 and yet it has survived all this time and we are able to still see her work 413 years later. For me it also raises questions like what sort of conditions did she work in way back then? And I wonder too what sort of needle she used?

Also in the Textile Study Room, I was also delighted to find the most charming little samplers embroidered by Mrs Archibald Christie. I'll show you some of these little treasures next time. 'Till then if you are in wet wintry and windy Cape Town, keep warm and dry.


  1. Good evening, I'm an Italian 25-year-old embroiderer. I love this kind of embroidery, the Danish embroideries are wonderful, even those of Dresden. Do you have any other similar embroidery photos? can you recommend some books where you can admire and study ?! thank you very much, if you want you can also answer me privately on the email address

  2. Hi Andrea, thank you for leaving a comment. "Ayrshire and Other Whitework' by Margaret Swain is an excellent little book with photos and history. "Embroidered with White' by Heather Toomer has very many photos. I would love to see your embroideriess if you have a blog or website.