18th c. Embroidered Waistcoats

Without question, what most people ask me for are 18th c. embroidered waistcoats. It makes sense, since that was the first truly ambitious embroidery project I tackled, and to this day, it’s still my favorite.

Last year I made a second version of the same waistcoat, this time in much more muted grey tones on white linen, to match a linen suit my client was having made. Stitching it out again made me realize that even when the end result looks great, there are many technical details that make it difficult on the embroiderer. Copyright restrictions prevent me from ever selling that design as a product unto itself, so it doesn’t make much sense at this point to go back and clean it up.

C&B Waistcoat

However, I do want to have waistcoats in my product line, since so many people have expressed a desire for them. I was aiming for Summer 2016 as a release date, figuring that 2015 would focus on smaller borders and accessories. Luckily, I get to move that up a year, thanks to a couple nudges from the universe over the last couple weeks.

First up will be something a little simpler: a late 18th c. or early Regency style waistcoat based on this pink striped linen example in the Met. I’m so excited about this one, it went into development within a day of getting the nudge to do it! The nice part about this design is that the floral motifs would be just as well suited to women’s garments or heirloom sewing, in case a waistcoat isn’t your thing.

The second one will be a more traditional 18th c. style with a slightly earlier cut, around 1770. This one is inspired by another example at the Met. This design will take a little longer to produce, since I will also be publishing a waistcoat pattern to go with it, so you can be confident that the pattern and the embroidery will match up.

I’m so excited to be tackling these projects sooner than anticipated. I really love menswear, and I love the challenge of making items like these come to life again. These will probably only be two of many waistcoat designs I will eventually offer, so that men can have some options when picking a design.  Even though the cut of waistcoats remained more or less the same, there is a lot of variety in how bold or delicate the actual embroidery was, and I want to be able to reflect that in the designs I produce.


June 1826 Muslin Pattern

Here’s a sneak peak at an embroidery design that is almost ready to be released. It’s a muslin pattern from the June 1826 edition of Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics. Handkerchief-1-web This particular design can be made up into a square for a handkerchief, or one central corner for a fichu. It could also be used for an apron or gown, with a scalloped edge and the floral sprig as a scattered fill or additional border. Handkerchief-3-web The original inspiration image can be seen here: 1826 Regency Needlework Pattern 6 June 1826 This is the kind of design gets me really excited about the possibilities of machine embroidery. In less than 4 hours, I can make an entire handkerchief. In 4 hours by hand.. I can probably make a mess of some thread and want to throw my embroidery hoop across the room. I have great admiration for those who can do hand work, but I don’t know if I will ever have the time and patience to join their ranks. Until then, well-researched machine embroidery is a compromise I am happy to live with! Handkerchief-4-web

Cutwork borders – a tutorial and a freebie!

One of the features in my first few designs is the option to make a cutwork edge as part of the embroidery process, creating a neatly finished edge like you find in hand sewn and manufactured goods. Since this may not be familiar to many of you, I wanted to post a quick tutorial as well as a freebie so you can try it out at home.

Whenever possible, I use natural fiber fabrics as my base for embroidery. Fine fabrics such as lightweight lawn and batiste are suitable for cutwork, but anything extremely sheer and delicate may not have enough body to support the cut edge once the stabilizer is rinsed away. If you wish to use a very sheer fabric, I recommend that you experiment with a combination of stabilizers, possibly using a tear away under the cutwork edge for additional support even if you use wash away stabilizer for the rest of the design.

For cutwork designs I use matching thread on top and in the bobbin, rather than a different bobbin thread. This creates a smooth finished edge for the fabric.  I typically use DMC 50 weight cotton machine embroidery thread, and sometimes an 80 weight thread like Madeira Cotona for delicate fabrics.

1. Lightly starch and iron your fabric before beginning.

2. If making a continuous border, mark a line for your finished edge with a pencil, wash away pen, or by drawing a single thread. This will be where the deepest part of the scallop touches the edge. You may also wish to mark a second line marking the highest point of the scallops, where the design repeats match up.

3. Layer the fabric on top of 1-2 layers of wash-away stabilizer. If desired, use a temporary spray adhesive to hold the layers together while hooping.  Hoop with the fabric layer on top.

4. Stitch Color 1, which forms a cutting line in running stitch, just inside the finished edge of the design.

Color 1 stitches out the cutting line.

Color 1 stitches out the cutting line.

5. Remove hoop from the machine, but DO NOT remove the fabric from the hoop.

6. Carefully trim away the fabric below the stitched line, cutting as close as possible to the stitching without cutting any threads. Be careful not to stretch or shift the fabric while trimming. I also trim away the loose fabric so it can’t get caught in the stitching later. Do not cut into the layer of stabilizer.

Trim away excess fabric below cutting line.

Trim away excess fabric below cutting line.

7. Replace the hoop in the machine, and continue stitching the remaining colors of the design. Color 2 will zigzag over the cut edge of the fabric, then cover it in satin stitches. When the stabilizer is washed away, this will be the finished edge of the fabric. If you notice you have a lot of whiskers showing after the zigzag stitches, you can stop the machine and trim them away before you stitch the satin stitches. Most of the time they won’t be noticeable in the finished project.

Halfway through color 1, showing the zigzag stitches being covered by satin stitches.

Halfway through color 1, showing the zigzag stitches being covered by satin stitches.

Cutwork 4

Satin stitches completed. Ready to repeat into a border, or to wash away the stabilizer. 

Here are the front and back views of the finished stitching. The back stitches don’t look as smooth as the top stitches, but when stitched in matching thread they won’t be noticeably different looking if the edge gets flipped up during use.


Front of work.


Back of work. 

Just think of all the things you can do with a pretty scalloped border. Here is my Pinterest board with a few ideas to get you started.

Want to try it out? Download the freebie here.

Stabilizers for Historic Garments

One of the topics that confused me most when I started machine embroidery was what kind of stabilizer to use and when. There are so many choices to pick from, and many can be downright expensive. The sewing machine shops were quick to recommend cut away and tear away stabilizers for almost everything. They are generally only thinking in terms of knits and sturdy wovens, not the cottons, linens, and silks often used for historic costuming.

I quickly discovered that for historic garments, I really didn’t want any trace of the stabilizer left behind. The thread alone adds a fair amount of stiffness that you don’t see in hand embroidery, and stabilizer can add even more bulk. Cut away can show through after pressing, and tear away can be a pain to pick out of detailed designs. In the end, I discovered I prefer to use wash away stabilizers on almost every project, because you’re left with just fabric and thread. Obviously, that doesn’t work well with silks or other fabrics that shouldn’t get wet. For those I generally use a tear away, though I’m intrigued by the heat away options that disintegrate when heated by an iron, and then can be brushed away.

Unfortunately, not all wash away stabilizers are made equal, and some fabrics can be wriggly in the hoop, making lining up borders or designs difficult. Here are a few of the things I’ve figured out over the past few years. It’s by no means the only way to do things, but if you’re just starting out, I hope it saves you some of the trial and error I went through.

  • There are two types of wash away stabilizers: sheer, plastic-like ones and white, fabric-like ones. I like the second type, because they seem to hold up better as the needle goes through them repeatedly and therefore give more support to the design.
  • Some stabilizers wash away better than others, so it’s a good idea to try it out before you commit to a big roll. Right now I like the H2O Gone wash away stabilizer, but there are many other options out there.
  • You may need two layers of stabilizer, especially since the wash away types aren’t as firm as the tear away and cut away stabilizers. Sometimes you may need even more ways to firm up your fabric. (I’ll cover some ideas later in this post.)
  • You may need one layer under and another on top of the fabric, especially if your stitches are sinking into the fabric, or the machine is catching on the fabric, like when you’re stitching on velvet or tucked fabric. The clear wash away stabilizers can be useful for that top layer.
  • It may help to baste the fabric to the stabilizer, either with stitching or with temporary spray adhesives, so there is less slipping as you embroider a design.
  • If your fabric is thin or slipping, it may help to add another layer of fabric into the hoop to increase the grip. You can wrap fabric strips or twill tape around the hoop, just like you might for hand embroidery.
  • If you’re going to use a wash away stabilizer, pre-wash your fabric before stitching. You don’t want it to shrink after you’ve done all that work!
  • There are more and more stabilizers on the market all the time. Some iron on, some are sticky, some melt away, heat away, or wash away. Don’t be afraid to experiment to find the right combination for the design you’re stitching on your fabric on your machine. Ruining a few swatches is vastly preferable to ruining a whole project.
  • Don’t be cheap when it comes to stabilizer, especially if you’re using good fabrics and good thread. It can seem like a big expense, but it makes such a difference in the final product.

For some projects, stabilizer alone may never be enough. Delicate cotton batiste or wriggly linen can be difficult no matter what you use with them. In these cases, it can help to stiffen up the fabric itself before hooping with your stabilizer of choice.

One option is starch. Several coats of spray starch can really help a wiggly or sheer fabric become manageable. This goes for sewing it, as well! If you want to go even stiffer, any old-fashioned liquid starch that would make a petticoat stand up by itself will also do the same with your fabric before embroidering.

Another option is a liquid stabilizer. There are ready-made versions out there, but I prefer a DIY version made from wash away stabilizer dissolved in warm water.  If you trim away the excess stabilizer from your projects before you wash them and save the scraps, it’s free. This makes my frugal little heart happy, because I hate wasting anything, especially 3/4 of the width of the stabilizer when stitching borders!

I use roughly two parts water to one part scraps, aiming for a nice balance between too runny and too sticky. I used about a fistful of scraps for a jar this size.

The ingredients for a DIY liquid stabilizer: wash away scraps, warm water, and a brush.

You can brush it on or use a spray bottle. I prefer a brush, because I don’t want to worry about sticky overspray to clean up later, or needing to unclog the nozzle if it dries out. No matter what, it’s a bit sticky and messy, so take that into consideration before you start!

The messy task of brushing on liquid stabilizer.

This is a sheer cotton fabric before and after the liquid stabilizer. The stiffened fabric has a lot of body, like organza, and is much easier to hoop without pulling it off grain.

Sheer cotton fabric before and after being stiffened with liquid stabilizer.

So how much difference does it really make?

Sample 1: Linen straight off the bolt, and hooped with wash away stabilizer. The faint blue line to the left was a straight line on grain when hooped. You can see how the stitching has pulled the fabric off grain in places, and there are some puckers in the embroidery.

Fabric 1

Sample 2: Linen ironed with several coats of spray starch, then hooped with wash away stabilizer. This has a pulled thread at the left of the image to show the grain of the fabric.  This is better, with more of the fabric still on grain and fewer puckers. More starch or a heavier starch would have helped even more.

Fabric 2

Sample 3: Linen brushed with liquid stabilizer and left to dry, then hooped with wash away stabilizer. This also has a pulled thread at the left of the image to show the grain of the fabric. Most of the fabric is still on grain, and there was almost no puckering at all this time. This is a great option for a larger design or border that you need to piece together accurately.

Fabric 3

So please, take the time to experiment and find the stabilizer option that gives you the best results with the least headaches. Most of what they will tell you in the sewing shops applies to someone embroidering t-shirts and kids’ clothing, not historic garments and delicate fabrics, but there are options that work beautifully if you hunt for them.

Why machine embroidery?

It was probably 15 years ago that I first saw an embroidery machine and went “oooh!! I want that!!”  It seemed like the perfect way to add some detail to the historical costumes I made, and my mind was spinning with possibilities.  Every year or two I’d stop into a sewing store and look longingly at the newest models, but it was many years before I actually made the purchase.

When I finally did get the courage to buy one, it wasn’t the dazzling experience I thought it would be.  It started off well enough.  I got such a thrill opening the box and looking at all the designs included with the machine.  I happily bought thread and stitched a few things out.  So cool! Then I needed a real project to test it out on, and that’s where my excitement started to wane.

There was a lily among the designs I owned. That seems like something with potential, right? Didn’t Worth make some gowns embroidered with lilies? Surely I could figure out how to add some embroidery to a ball gown. The problem was that one lone lily wasn’t big enough or varied enough to recreate the opulence of a Worth gown without just looking silly.  When I went looking for additional lilies, they were too small or the style didn’t blend or they had some other problem, and my grand ideas of ball gowns went on hold.

So I looked for a less ambitious project, like some sweet borders for Victorian frillies or a blouse.  That worked pretty well, as long as I was willing to limit myself to straight lines.  Unfortunately, I discovered there were a lot of curved hems and corners on collars that I had no idea how to work around. So I still wasn’t producing the garments I envisioned, and I was discouraged enough that there were months (and years) where my machine sat gathering dust.

The other limitation was that there are very few historically accurate designs out there. My favorites are from Martha Pullen’s historic collection. These have the benefit of being taken straight from period clothing, but often aren’t the complete set of designs needed to recreate the garment in question.  For example, her DAR collection has designs taken from several waistcoats, but generally only includes the borders. What do you do when you need pockets and collars and all the shaped embroidery?

Even with the addition of some pretty expensive embroidery software, the options didn’t expand much.  Editing files was hard, and digitizing from scratch was even harder. The first time I managed to cut and paste and smoosh together some designs to create a waistcoat I was over the moon!! It’s still one of my favorite pieces.  Unfortunately, there were quite a few flaws in my editing technique that made it unwieldy to stitch out, and I never quite mustered the energy to start over and do it more thoughtfully.

A close up of my first really ambitious embroidery project.

A close up of my first really ambitious embroidery project, an 18th c. men’s waistcoat, using heavily edited versions of Martha Pullen’s DAR design collection.

Along the way I learned a few things.  First, there is a rhyme and reason to how designs are professionally digitized.  Even when they are driving us crazy with 14 seemingly needless color changes, they really do know best.  There’s a push and pull to the way a machine stitches out, and professional designs compensate for this so that the design is properly aligned at the end of your hard work. My attempts at editing and digitizing taught me exactly how much I didn’t know. Second, modern machine embroidery assumes the wearer is going to toss the clothing in the washing machine frequently.  As a result, there aren’t many long floating stitches like you would see in hand embroidery, and the end product often looks flat and modern.

Eventually this led me to where I am now, tackling the task of translating historic designs taken from extant garments and period publications into a format that can go into an embroidery machine and come back out looking as handmade as possible. I’ve been working with professional digitizers so the resulting designs are high quality, but it does take a bit of back and forth as I explain WHY I want them to go against the conventions of the industry. Once again, I am getting a good look at how much I don’t know!

Along with getting the stitches to mimic hand work, I’ve spent a lot of time playing with different threads.  When I first started out, I had no idea there was a world beyond the sea of rayon in every sewing shop.  It turns out there is silk, cotton, and wool available, and they add beauty and dimension to a machine stitched design, helping bridge the gap between hand and machine work even more. They can be more expensive, but I think they are worth every penny.

Now, someone is going to ask the question – why bother with a machine at all? Why not just learn to do it by hand? Well, I do know how to do the basics by hand, but I currently have neither the skill or the time to create the type of projects I envision.  The machine is faster and better than I am, or probably ever will be.  As well, some people have physical limitations that would prevent them from tackling an ambitious hand embroidery project.

Just like with everything in the costuming world, everyone works at their own level.  Some will do handwork, some will do machine work, and some will find trims and fabrics that are close enough for their own tastes. For those that are inspired by the possibilities of machine embroidery, I want to start offering some real alternatives to what is currently out there.  My products won’t be for everyone, and that’s fine by me. If even a few people dust off their machines and get excited about embroidery again, it will be worth it.

Swimming in Swatches

No matter the type of handiwork, I’ve always hated making swatches. I do them because I know how valuable they are, but it’s still my least favorite part of a project. So of course, I decided to launch an idea that would require me to swatch things over and over and over again until they’re just right. What was I thinking??

Well, mostly I was thinking about how awesome it would be to bring period embroidery designs to life in a way that didn’t make them look flat and modern. It’s been a very interesting learning curve, figuring out how to translate historic pieces into something a machine can reproduce, and it hasn’t been without a few hiccups. I know enough about good digitizing to know I don’t know how to do it myself, but most professional digitizers need some coaxing to step outside their comfort zones. Once it looks good on the computer, then comes the work of making sure it looks good in practice – and that means endless swatches, in silk, cotton, and wool threads, on a variety of cotton and linen fabrics.

This silk on cotton voile swatch was stunning...until I washed away the stabilizer and the edge collapsed.

This silk thread on cotton voile swatch was stunning…until I washed away the stabilizer and the edge collapsed. Working on potential fixes, because this is gorgeous on sheer fabric!

As you might expect, some combinations work better than others, or look more period.  For example, take a peek at the same pattern in both silk and wool.  What a difference, right?

Wool on the left, silk on the right.  Can you see the difference in texture?

Wool on the left, silk on the right. Can you see the difference in texture?

It’s helped me discover issues – for example, cutwork on linen doesn’t act the same as cutwork on cotton voile.  I’ve also learned, and been frustrated by, the fact that some color ranges are available in some threads but not others. So my beloved yellow-greens are readily available in silk and wool, but ridiculously hard to find in cotton. Some colors that look great on the spools just look garish or clash when stitched out together. With each new discovery comes a new swatch or two… or five.

Just a few of the swatches so far.

Just a few of the swatches so far.

The good news is that although I’m long past my original target date, I am getting close to having something to publish. I’m also thinking ahead to the next few patterns.  So far I’ve only worked on 18th c. and Regency era designs for women, but I’d like to expand my range to include earlier pieces as well as some items for men, like pocketbooks and caps.

It’s about the journey, right?

A lot has happened this year to make me take stock of where I’m at and what I really want to be doing.  I originally started Romantic Recollections with the vision of a small business I could work from home while I raised children and did some homesteading on our 5 acre property.  It was a big dream, but the business wasn’t really the biggest part of that dream.  It was something I loved doing that I hoped would help make the other dreams possible.

I’ve come a long way from that original vision. The children I dreamed of never showed up, and the efforts we made to bring them into our lives distracted me from making much progress on the business – or the homestead, for that matter. We firmly closed the door on the idea of children this year, which opened up a lot of questions about what I really want to be doing with my life and with the business.  Suddenly, the business is in the position of not being a little thing to help out around my other activities, but in the position of being THE thing that I do.

Frankly, this scares me half to death. I’ve made a lot of false starts over the last few years, meaning to blog, meaning to sew, meaning to grow this business.  It’s not in any position right now to support the dreams of the future that is shaping up in front of me. But you know what else? There’s more than one reason I haven’t put the work into this business that would be needed to really succeed at it. I’m finally being honest with myself, and I’ve realized I just don’t like client work as my main business, and it’s been making me pretty unhappy and stressed out for a while.

Now, I love historical costuming. I love researching and planning and fabric shopping.  I really love making patterns and I love sewing. I love wearing the outfits and talking about it with other costumers, and even talking about it with clients. I have so many ideas and get so fired up at the thought of everything I want to do. I can see how passionate I am about this topic, and it always felt sensible to pursue it as a business.

The reality is that while I love all those things, I don’t often enjoy what I end up doing in my business – usually because I don’t get to do enough of the parts I truly love. It also leaves me with little time and inspiration to sew for myself, so not only do I not love my work, I also don’t participate in a hobby I love. As much as I really wanted to make it work, it isn’t making me happy, and it shows.  Work projects rarely, if ever, make it as far as the blog or the website because I was so drained by the end of projects that I didn’t care enough to document them. I didn’t spend a lot of time searching out new clients, because I was already overwhelmed with the few I had. I’m finally admitting to myself and everyone else that if I intend to have a costuming business, I need to take it a different direction.

But these years of muddling through to this realization haven’t been a complete waste. I’ve met some wonderful people in the costuming world, including some great entrepreneurs who have found their niche and are thriving – and it doesn’t involve sewing for others. I’ve dipped my toes into teaching and writing, I’ve won a competition, I’ve learned a ton about period clothing and I’ve turned out some pieces I am incredibly proud of. I’ve also figured out some of the things that really make me light up, like millinery and embroidery and making silk flowers.

For the last couple years I’ve been full of ideas about the potential of machine embroidery when combined with historic designs. There are so many pieces I would love to bring to life, not just for myself, but for the many costumers out there who wish, like I do, that there were historically accurate machine embroidery patterns available. It’s a topic I’m incredibly passionate about, and everyone I’ve talked to has been excited about the possibilities.

I have a clear vision of what I want to do and I’ve been working on some designs this year, around my client projects. I’ve been justifying the client work as a way to support the embroidery development, but I’m finally seeing that it’s been a huge roadblock instead. By the time client work is finished, the last thing I want to do is go work in my studio, and that’s just wrong. I’ve been letting the thing that makes me unhappy get in the way of the thing that makes me shine.

So I’m walking away from client work as gracefully as I can. I need to move on to the really exciting ideas that keep me in the studio for hours, yet feel like mere minutes. It’s time to build this business into something I love that can also sustain me, and I think this new direction has a lot of promise. I still want to do some hands-on work, and I have some ideas for what that might look like down the road, but I don’t want that to distract me just now.  My big priority for 2015 is launching some beautiful embroidery patterns and helping people use them in their own projects. I can’t wait to show you some of my ideas!

The calm before the storm



I took some time last week for a thorough spring cleaning of the studio. It’s amazing what odds and ends linger in strange places long after a project has ended, and it felt good to get everything back into it’s proper place and all the surfaces cleared off. We also moved in a new piece of furniture – an antique cedar chest that belonged to my wife’s grandmother – so we had to do some trial and error to figure out where it fit best. In the photo you can see it in the back left corner.

So now that everything is cleaned up, it’s time to make a mess again! This is going to be a very busy spring in the studio, with many projects lined up. Here is the current to-do list:

Embroidery – I’ve been working on a line of machine embroidery designs that are currently in the testing phase, and which I hope to release for sale this spring. That means lots of stitching out, making samples, and taking pictures. As well, I have an 18th c. man’s waistcoat of white linen that I am embroidering with a floral design in shades of grey and white.

Client projects – I am working on several big projects for a client. On the list are a WWI ambulance driver’s uniform and nurse’s uniform, a 1912 silk suit and all the underpinnings, and some early 1920’s lingerie.

Costume College projects – I’m also thinking ahead to this year’s CoCo, especially since last year’s weight loss means my closet is empty! On my list are 1830’s underpinnings, a day gown to match a lovely red bonnet I have, and crazy hair to wear with the underpinnings for Sunday undies. I also plan to make a new 18th c. chemise gown and open robe, new stays, and a fabulous new hat. I have a partially-completed pink silk striped gown and raspberry pink petticoat that would be nice to finish for the gala.  If time allows, I’d like to finish a 1950’s day dress and a Gatsby-inspired day dress to wear to classes (and summer picnics!) We’ll see how far I get on this project list, since they have to work themselves in around everything else.

I’m really excited about this list, and as luck would have it, some projects tie in nicely with this year’s Your Wardrobe Unlock’d competition. I hope to have better luck blogging this year’s projects, since they aren’t secrets, rush jobs, or boring renovations of costumes I didn’t originally make.

Old-Time Embroidery

I’ve been on a bit of an embroidery kick lately, and along the way I’ve been dipping into my stash of old magazines for inspiration. I was intrigued by one of the articles in the August 1902 edition of The Modern Priscilla, about “Old-Time Embroidery.” It was accompanied by photographs of some pieces that seemed historically significant enough that surely I could easily find color photos and better views somewhere out on the internet, and I quickly tumbled down a rabbit hole of research.

The first picture is of a charming nosegay of forget-me-nots tied with ribbon embroidered on a piece of moiré, with “Martha Washington” neatly stitched underneath. The 1902 article claims it is a bit of embroidery from the gown Martha wore to the inaugural ball.

Forget-me-not embroidered signed Martha Washington
Forget-me-not embroidery signed Martha Washington

However, even the tiniest bit of modern-day research turns up enough questions to make me doubt this story. There are at least two different gowns on the internet listed as “Martha Washington’s Inaugural Gown,” with little or no support for the claim. One is in the Smithsonian, but that institution does not specify it as her inaugural gown, just simply a gown she owned. Neither gown is white moiré or embroidered. I found quotes claiming Martha couldn’t have been at the inaugural ball because she didn’t follow George to the capital until a month after his inauguration, and that she opposed his election and refused to attend the inauguration at all.  Another quote says there were no inaugural balls at that time, but there was a ball in New York a week later to honor the new president. At this point, I didn’t see a reason to keep digging.  Whatever the real story, it seems likely that this scrap is nothing more than a bit of lovely embroidery used by an associate to prove how cool he was because he was chummy with the first president.

The second item is a lavishly embroidered pocketbook with the caption “Embroidered satin sachet, left by the Princess Elizabeth at Ashbridge at the time of her arrest.” This is, unfortunately, an engraving and not a photograph of the pocketbook. However, you can see a photograph of what is purported to be the same pocketbook in the book Chats on Old Lace and Needlework, by Mrs. Lowes, first published in 1908.  In this case, it is said to be part of Countess Brownlow’s collection, but how it got there and where it went afterward is not clear. My internet and museum searches turned up many similar pocketbooks, but not a hint of the one pictured. My gut tells me that like the Martha Washington embroidery, someone added a story to the antique they were selling in order to raise the value.


The other items pictured are almost pointless to try to identify. One is captioned “English Sampler Worked in 1799.”  If, as the author claims, just about everyone had a sampler handed down from some old relative, I can’t help but wonder if this was taken out of the author’s own attic and used for a convenient photo. At least it was photographed before being lost to time.


The final photo is more obscure yet, captioned “A Piece of Amy Robsart’s Quilt,” without any accompanying text to tell readers more about it.  Was someone claiming this Jacobean-style bit of embroidery was stitched or owned by the wife of Lord Robert Dudley, or merely by a woman who shared the same name? Was it only a piece because you couldn’t photograph all of it, or had it been cut up for some other purpose, and this scrap had been saved?  I’m sure it has a lovely history, whether real or made up, but we don’t get to read anything about it!


I find it an odd journalistic quirk that the text of the article and the accompanying photos have almost nothing to do with each other.  And the items in the text are so vague.. which pope? which painter? At least she could have dropped some more names, considering she’d already based the article on some wild speculation. You can hardly learn anything at all from an article like this, even though it looks so tempting on the surface.

The only thing I could confirm was that Sir John Chandos is reputed to have been tangled up in his clothing, which led to his death. Froissart  described him as being “dressed in a large robe which fell to the ground, blazoned with his arms on white sarcenet, argent, a pile gules; one on his breast, and the other on his back,” so that part of the story seems as accurate as can be for something that happened in the 14th century.

I do find it a shame that the author seems unaware of what was possible in her own time.  She couldn’t have known about the glorious peacock gown that would makes its debut a year later, but surely she didn’t believe her own statement that “we have nothing in the present to compare with the embroidery of years ago, with its magnificence of material, its lavish use of gold and silver, its richness of coloring and countless stitches?”  While the 18th century did produce many exquisite works of embroidery, so did the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Here is the article in full:

Old-Time Embroidery

By Suzanne H. Ackerman

If we stop to think long enough in this all-absorbing age, we will find that delving into reminiscences of the past is like reading some charming old romance. About the old-time needlework there lingers much of this atmosphere of charm. It needs but little imagination to fancy some living hand, then as strong and deft as our own, plying the needle and enriching the cloth stitch by stitch — the hand of some one whose fame still exists, or of some one far back in our line of ancestry, who lives yet in these voiceless reminders of their time.

Famous, indeed, if only through reflected glory, is the “Mother of her Country,” – Martha Washington. In a collection of Revolutionary relics, owned by Jonathan Trumbull, aide de camp to General Washington, is a piece of white moiré antique, richly embroidered, as may be seen in the illustration, being a part of the dress worn by the wife of the first President at his inauguration ball, and her own work, as well. Doubtless worked with these stitches was the hope that this beautiful gown might aid her in doing justice to such a high and exalted position, and many a wish for the dignified success of this grand and imposing ball. This takes us back to the days of celebrated belles and beauties, to the days of powder and patches and the stately minuet. Poor are we indeed in heirlooms if we cannot show at least a sampler handed down through successive descendants from some time-honored ancestor. The alphabet in small letters and capitals, stilted figures and flowers, and a verse always pointing out some standard of conduct, make up the sum total of their designs. But the odd little figures, the verse, and the letters speak of the laborious persistency that never relaxed until that invariable possession of every well-brought-up child was finished, a sort of certificate of education which it attested was being carried on along proper lines.

In our enthusiasm for, and loyalty to, our own time, we are apt to overestimate its work.  But however beautiful we may consider the embroidery of to-day, it takes very little research into the old-time history of needlework to destroy our self-importance and leave us wondering and amazed at its disclosures. We have nothing in the present to compare with the embroidery of years ago, with its magnificence of material, its lavish use of gold and silver, its richness of coloring and countless stitches. It is almost incredible the amount of time and money which long ago was spent upon embroidery. In the life of an old Italian painter a vestment is spoken of that took twenty-six years to finish. This would seem to our practical twentieth century mind a sheer waste of time, as it admittedly would be in our own day, but it must be viewed in the light of the then existing conditions.  Women then had no share in the world’s work, and were driven to dispel ennui with the needle. The lady of high degree in her solitary grandeur and the nun in her cloister, impelled by the desperate necessity of doing something to while away the endless hours, gave to the world work of unrivaled magnificence. Pieces of old embroidery still extant show a leaning toward that which could be appropriated for church use — altar frontals, copes, chasubles, and vestments of all kinds. The most beautiful work done by titled ladies and nuns, especially previous to the eighteenth century, was presented by them to the church. Such gorgeous robes and trappings as we have never seen in our day, and could scarcely imagine, were its property. A vestment belonging to a Pope of the ninth century represented the wise virgins with their lighted torches, while another was embroidered on a ground of amber-colored satin, with peacocks decked in all their brilliant plumage.

The days of romance and chivalry would have been shorn of half their interest were the knights not decked in such gorgeous array. Their garb was rich with the embroidery of fair hands, especially the surcoat and scarf. It is related of Sir John Chandos, one of the most gallant knights of Edward III, that he became entangled in his exquisitely embroidered but ridiculously long surcoat, and fell, receiving while down his death blow. Across his surcoat was a scarf which some “faire ladye” had worked with her “nedil,” and bestowed upon the knight to show her preference. The quaint costumes of colonial times were vastly enhanced by their decorations of embroidery.

Embroidered petticoats and girdles, capes, and mantles were every woman’s property, and the men were richly costumed in embroidered garments. There were richly worked cuffs and wide collars; then there were the bead purses, the handbags, and countless other accessories. The fashion of wearing aprons was then in high favor, and lessons were given and patterns sold for embroidering in Dresden and darned work and in cross stitch. Samples of these aprons were sent from England, and were seized upon and eagerly copied by colonial dames.

An old mansion on the outskirts of New York, built in Revolutionary days by a Van Courtlandt, contains some genuine specimens of work done in colonial times and when our country was still in the days of its youth. One is a splasher, worked in 1764 by Rhoda Marsh, wife of Colonel Ebenezer Marsh, of Litchfield. It is a white linen one, with shaped edges that are hemmed. A graceful border on the order of French embroidery resolves itself at each corner into an urn with flowers, from which four pieces branch toward a similar one in the center. The curious and interesting part of this piece is a picture worked above the central figure. It represents a house set upon a terrace, surrounded by trees, with birds perched upon its branches. To one side is a barn and to the other a pond, upon which ducks are placidly resting. All this picturing is done in fine, white embroidery cotton, like the rest of the splasher. Letting our imagination run riot a little, we can readily guess that this was the home of Rhoda Marsh, which she so loved that she must even perpetuate it with her needle.

Intense love of country life must have been a characteristic of the age, evidenced by the tenor of their designs, especially in the most curious piece in the collection — a bedspread made by hand a hundred and twenty five years ago. It is done upon coarse, soft cotton, the centre having large curving stems and leaves in shades of blue green and light brown. Upon the two sides of this spread is the most remarkable border. Sixteen rows of varying shades of this same blue green, divided by one or two rows of the brown, form a background. Each row is half an inch wide, in a simple up and down stitch. On this background is depicted the typical every-day life of the farm. There is the old house and windmill; there are the barns, and the cattle grazing peacefully in the field. The dairy maids are carrying their pails back and forth, and here and there one has met a farm hand and is making merry with him. Nothing is left out — birds and trees, dogs and fowl, all are there — and one can see the busy life of the well-ordered farm, where every one is happy and the business of the day goes on with the regularity of clockwork.

Without a trace of beauty in line or in coloring, this piece has about it a very potent fascination, as indeed have all pieces, beautiful or not, that have survived the ravages of time, for association and sentiment have given them an added meaning. We can only hope for our own work that at least it will mean as much to those who come after as does the work of old times to us.

New Year’s update

I keep saying I am going to blog more, and then the days get away from me and I am silent for far too long.

Last fall was busy with a few big projects.

1) a complete overhaul of a client’s Civil War era wardrobe and all the underpinnings. This included day bodices, evening bodices, travel coats, and the works!  Nothing picture-worthy, but fun to work on.

2) a custom set of Regency stays.

3) another appearance at our local Fiber Arts show, this time with Mr. Forest in his 18th century nobleman’s outfit.

4) some Christmas crafting, including hand-embroidered stockings and pockets (no pictures yet) and some machine-embroidered pockets.  As well as aprons, a dolly, and some other crafty, non-costume gifts.

5) testing out patterns, ordering supplies, and making lesson plans for my first teaching gig, a late Victorian corset class.  In the end, I settled on TV110 for the pattern, and have a nearly finished new corset for myself – it just needs a little more flossing before it is finished.

In the meantime, here’s a picture of the machine-embroidered pockets. Not period-accurate, by any stretch of the imagination, but the pattern has a Jacobean influence, and the recipient doesn’t give a fig about accuracy, anyway.


18th century machine-embroidered pockets for Z.