"History of Decorated Fabric"

History of Decorated Fabric

This is part of a series of articles I wrote about motifs and their origins. After I found that the Irish Catholic priests copied the bible I realized there were all manner of oriental motifs in the churches of England. These motifs eventually arrived in their North American colony, hence the heading for this article. Those articles need to be updated. The bibliography and the articles will return as soon as they are finished.

But did this go to America?

The English Virginia Company funded the first successful North American colony at Jamestown in present day Virginia. They wanted to foster trade with the North American colony and the natives of North America. Along the way the colonists developed different ideas about the purpose of colonization, and history delivered us a number of myths that produced more mysteries for me to solve.

This is a design I made to mimic the Elizabethan embroidery. It has the coiling vines and the surface style of embroidery used by Elizabethan women and Colonial North American women.

There are several portraits of Elizabethan ladies from 1587 to 1600 with the same style of surface embroidery. Two are shown below.


Portrait of an unknown Lady, 1587, "Blackwork Embroidery," Elisabeth Geddes and Moyra McNeill, page 27, Dover Publication, 1976


Portrait Mary Cornwalis, Countess of Bath, 1575, The Art of Embroidery, Lanto Synge, page 76. And her sister, Lady Kitson, 1573, "Blackwork", Mary Gostelow, page 60, Dover Edition, 1998

After looking at these portraits it is inescapable to me that this style of embroidery is the same style that was used in Colonial North America and the belief that the embroidery was invented here has to be disputed. There were hundreds of different titled pattern books published in England, and they were available at the seaport towns of colonial North America. Much of what the Blue and White Society of the twentieth century offered for sale was taken from research the owners did in the local area of Deerfield, Massachusetts. Two members of the Blue and White Society of Deerfield were trained at the New York Academy. They had an education not only in art technique but history from which they drew inspiration.

To continue my point, the style of embroidery in the Deerfield Embroidery and the Elizabethan embroidery as seen in the portraits mentioned above is more suited to commercial work as the larger designs and types of embroidery stitches like the Roumanian stitch could be quickly done by a stitcher. The result would be appreciated by the buyers as the designs were balanced and well covered the field of cloth and were more durable. The characteristic Elizabethan designs of undulating or scrolling vines as we see in the sleeves of the Elizabethean ladies were easy to adapt. The motif filled scrolls could fit any shape, and they provided an aesthetically balanced, pleasing design. All of this would have been prized in Elizabethan England with a growing middle class and in colonial North America with new homes to decorate.

From the 1850's until the beginning of the 20th century a belief formed that the first North American colonists spun and dyed their clothing and with the scraps created a bit of embroidery. This belief can be read in HOMESPUN AND BLUE, by Martha G. Stearns. But this is not what happened, because lead seals from English cloth bolts are found in archeological research of New England. And one of the purposes of North American colonization for the English was to sell 'the masse of our cloths and other commodities', from the 1584 treastise by Englishman Richard Hakluyt.

The fact that the designs were easily copied from various sources that have since disappeared may be the reason why this 'American Embroidery' myth developed. Or perhaps the North American colonies simply wanted to establish their own identity from the distant rule of England and likely named this embroidery their own. Along the way we forgot this very logical reasoning and confused a defiant wish for independence with invention.

I have not found anywhere in my research a wish for 'something new' or creative over production, except in a brief period of Romanticism in Europe. It would not surprise me to discover that the colonists could not have cared less about whether or not the drawing was creative, but cared instead about the item produced from the drawing. That is was well made and most important that it was what they wanted. The world has changed so much for us that we no longer can understand the mind of a craftsman. We now have the time to create, so our pride is in the uniqueness of a creation. We can establish our identity, separate ourselves from the crowd in that way.

But for the North American colonials it became 'American embroidery', no myth intended.

The Roumanian stitch also called the New England Laid Stitch, is the distinctive stitch of Colonial North American embroidery. This stitch is found on most of the colonial crewel type embroidery and it was thought to be invented in North America. But it is used in Egyptian embroidery as can be seen in the chart below of embroidery from the Mamluk era. The Egyptians called it "thread that couches itself."

This Egyptian Mamluk fragment outdates the North American colonies by more than two centuries, so the stitch could hardly have been invented in North America. The stitch uses very little thread on the back side of the design as it forms two very narrow rows of stitches at steps (2 - 3) and steps (4 - 1) on the back side of the embroidery. This stitch would not effect the front of the embroidery design as it covers as well as the Satin stitch. You can see this in the picture of the Carnation embroidery below. And with the extra cross over stitch or couching stitch it is much more durable.

The slanted stitches of the Mamluk band uses the Roumanian stitch. Also the blue petals of the carnations in the embroidery below were stitched with band of the Roumainian stitch.

©2000 Linda Fontenot, www.AmericanFolkArts.com, All Rights Reserved.