Saturday, April 15, 2017

Art Review

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

Throughout history, elaborately embroidered garments or furnishings have been popular as a reflection of the wearer's or owner's wealth and social status.

Queen Elizabeth’s wardrobe inventory of 1600 lists a gown of “black satten, embroidered all over with roses and pauncies and a border of oaken leaves”. Tudor and Elizabethan portraits show magnificent embroidery. Intricate patterns were embroidered on every available space, frequently highlighted with jewels.

From contemporary written accounts historians know that embroidery flourished as an art form in ancient Egypt and other early advanced civilisations.

Needlepoint is certainly a form of embroidery, but in many ways it is a craft in its own right. Today's post centers on the history of needlework.

Unlike other forms of embroidery, needlepoint is generally done as a design or picture to cover the entire background canvas. On the other hand, embroidery is usually associated with materials like silk and cotton, but from medieval times, wool and other relatively thicker thread have also been used in needlework. True tapestry work is wholly hand-woven, without a background fabric as a basis for the design.

Examples of needlepoint dating from the Middle Ages still exist and the craft thrived throughout this period in most of Western Europe.

The Syon Cope.

Detail of the Syon Cope.

The Syon Cope, from Syon Abbey, Middlesex was made between 1300 and 1320. The 'cope' would have been worn by a high-ranking priest or bishop. The 'cope', a semi-circular cape, is the outer garment worn by priests for special ceremonies and they are still used today, worn, for example, by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Syon Cope was taken out of the country by the Bridgettine nuns of Syon Abbey during the reign of Elizabeth I. The order was re-established in England in about 1810, and the Cope returned to these shores at that time.

In Britain its development continued into the Elizabethan era, and many museums now house magnificent book bindings, purses, cushions, table covers and hangings, all in needlepoint, displaying a variety of fascinating designs.

Late 16th Century English purse and pincushion embroidered with coloured silks and silver threads onto canvas in tent stitch.

Many early needlepoint themes were taken from nature with flowers, trees, animals and birds frequently featured. Bible characters and stories, myths and legends were also adapted into narrative illustration.

English embroidery of the late Tudor period - Garden of Eden.
Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Detail from a late 16th Century Spanish needlepoint wall hanging entitled "Galceran de Pines disembarks at Salona near Tarragona and stops the sending of ransom." The hanging is stitched in silk, wool and metal thread on canvas.

It was during the 16th Century that a particularly fascinating form of needlepoint known as "Turkey work" was first done. It was most commonly used for cushion covers and involved pulling of two strands through the canvas. These were then knotted and cut short, giving a pile-like appearance similar to that of a rug or carpet.

Turkey work or ghiordes knot used in surface hand embroidery.

The oriental influence became widespread as the trade routes to the East opened up in the 17th Century. Oriental designs soon became popular as both floral and pastoral needlepoint themes.

In the course of the 18th Century there was little real development in needlepoint technique, although Bargello or Florentine stitchery (also known as Hungarian Point) continued to flourish.

A spectacular example of Bargello needlepoint is seen in these bed hangings from the Great Chamber of Parham Park in Sussex, one of England's finest country houses. By tradition the bedhead and coverlet were embroidered by Mary Queen of Scots.

The early 19th Century, however, marked a turning point in needlepoint history: in the very first decade a book seller from Berlin first published a needlepoint design marked out on a squared paper. They were printed in black and white on paper and then hand-colored, and published mainly as single sheets to keep them affordable. They were eventually exported to Britain, where 'Berlin work' became a craze.

Museum of New Zealand.
Needlework pattern.
Production: Hertz and Wegener (maker/artist), 1800s, Berlin.
Materials: paper, ink, paint.
Classification: patterns.
Technique: printing, painting.
Dimensions: 289mm (height) x 521mm (width).
Gift of the Estate of June Starke, 2011.

Berlin wool work was a style of needlepoint embroidery, usually worked in single stitches in many colors and hues (which had been made possible by the great progresses made in dyeing from the 1830s). Berlin wool work produced very durable pieces of embroidery that could be used as furniture covers, cushions and bags. European settlers introduced the craft to North America, but the canvases were generally much smaller than those that had been embroidered in medieval times.

Needlepoint remains highly popular as a craft and the possibilities for originality in design, color and texture are never ending. Today, needlepoint designs can be followed on a ready stencilled canvas, by means of a chart or by tracing on the canvas with waterproof ink.

Petit Point are hand-painted needlepoint designs on 14 or 18 mesh Zwiegert mono canvas. 12cm x 12cm standard size.

The effects that can be achieved range from the most delicate pictorial designs to the boldest, brightest geometric designs.

Shields of Life Triumph.

The firm fabric created by needlepoint may be put to many uses, including wall hangings, cushions, bags, chair seats and even clothing.
Needlepoint Garden Dress.

[1] Creative Crafts Encyclopedia, Octopus Books, London (1977).

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