Saturday, April 30, 2016

Historical Australian Embroidery
Art Essay

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

A detailed history of the art of embroidery has already been given on this blogspot - Silk, Silk Road and the Art of Embroidery. Today’s post is concerned with early Australian embroidery.

Throughout history, embroidery has been one of the most intricately worked and colorful forms of decorative needlework. Unfortunately only in a few instances do very early records exist giving details of stiches and patterns in general used throughout the centuries.

An account in the Book of Exodus does tell us even in those early times Aaron’s robe was lavishly embellished with “pomegranates of blue and of purple and of scarlet around the hem thereof; and bells of gold between them round about”.

Aaron’s robe.

Remains of delicate embroideries have been found during excavations into ancient Egyptian burial sites; and a number of early Oriental pieces are also preserved – see earlier post.

Egyptian embroidery, found in a tomb at Thebes.
Courtesy of Gutenburg Project.

The world famous Bayeux Tapestry provides not only temporary reportage of the Battle of Hastings, but also an authentic picture of 11th Century European embroidery.

The full Bayeux tapestry.

Similarly the decorative needlework of Mary Queen of Scots is both intrinsically magnificent and also a pointer to later developments in stitchery.

Dolphin embroidery, Mary Queen of Scots.

Yet perhaps the most informative of all historic embroideries are the early samplers, providing as they do accurate and detailed records of techniques that date from the 1500s.

Linen sampler embroidered with silk in double running stitch, by unknown maker (Egypt, 14th-16th Century).

The sampler itself is basically a repertory of various stitches and designs, usually embroidered onto loose-weave linen. The term is derived from the Old French word essamplaire meaning pattern or model. Originally the sampler served as a stitchery notebook, listing selections of techniques first learned and then practiced in repeated horizontal rows. Only later did the sampler become something of an art form with scope for more original work.

An extensive assortment of stiches is displayed in Jane Bostocke’s sampler of 1598 – one of the earliest to survive.

Fascinating stitches like roco, Hungarian, Flórentine and Algerian Eye worked in silver and silver-gilt featured fairly early in sampler history, when the linen used was characteristically long and narrow in shape Рoften between six and twelve inches wide and up to five times as long. The sampler only became squarer and more pictorial around the mid-18th Century.

During the 18th and 19th Centuries in Europe and America, it became common place for young girls to make at least one such sampler whilst at school. Embroidery was an all-important part of the female school curriculum at the time; and so the sampler was soon to become - not just a souvenir of childhood, possibly of a small girl’s first exercise in stitchery – but also a pattern memorandum.

Hannah Taylor from Newport, Rhode Island, made this sampler in 1774, depicting her home and family in an intricate combination of cross-stich, satin stitch and crewel work.

Early Australian Embroidery
Embroidery is an enormously rich area of the arts. The changes in artistic styles and fashionable interiors are reflected constantly in embroidery and as an art form, in its symbols and techniques it embodies the history of women throughout the ages.

Australian embroidery dates only from the first half of the 19th Century. There is in Australia, however, a breadth and depth of embroidery, which reveals the history of embroidery itself. The art is practiced by all groups in the Australian society – from country folk, to the most urbanized city folk, from all strata of class in society (working class to middle class to the rich).

Embroidery has always had a great appeal to all groups of women, as it requires few tools. Historically the skills have been taught in Australia within the family or primary school, and articles to make and embroider have been available in Australia in kit form since the 1850s.

Design and stencil class, Fort Street Girls School, Sydney (Australia) 1910.

The earliest forms of Australian embroidery still remaining are samplers, pincushions and pictorial compositions, usually incorporated in designs for household articles such as cushion covers and pillow covers.

“Advance Australia” layette pincushion, made in 1833 on the arrival of a new baby. One of the oldest Australian items of domestic creativity to survive in mint condition.

It was the custom in the early 19th Century in Australia (as recalled by Mary Gilmore in her essay – Old Days Old Ways) to lay a hand-embroidered pincushion on the front doorstep of a friend who had given birth.

Foreground: Pincushion made for Isabel Turnbull in 1838.
Rear: Two beaded cushions, mid 19th Century.

In Australia the earliest needlework pictures in worsted wool are copies of oil paintings or prints. A particular example of this is a portrait of Sir Walter Scott in his study at Abbotsford.

William Allen’s print of Sir Walter Scott seated in his study at his home at Abbotsford in Scotland, reading a proclamation made by Mary Queen of Scots. One of his many dogs, thought to be either Maida or Bran, sits by the fire.

The tapestry below was the work of Anne Harborer who married William John Coverdale a surgeon and the last commandant of Port Arthur (Tasmania, Australia). Note: the plaid trousers and other variations in the tapestry shows how the artist adapted the print to her work.

Tapestry copy of a portrait of Sir Walter Scott in his study by Ann Harbroe.

These embroideries are rare, unlike the Berlin wool work, which replaced them.

Parrot. Berlin wool work, gros point, unworked background made by Jessie McNabb in 1880.
Size: 56 x 45.5 cm.

From about 1850 in Australia in the flourishing period after the gold rush, middle class women enjoyed Berlin wool work as the most popular form of embroidery. Berlin wool work is wool embroidery produced on a canvas, which is painted with graphic designs. The origin of the name “Berlin” wool work lies in Germany where counted thread embroidery (which entirely covered the ground) was developed. It began in England around 1839. This work required no design skills on the part of the embroider; all that was necessary was a knowledge of the basic technique of counted thread work, much like “painting by numbers”, and the ability to follow the graphic design, so that complex shaded pictures could be built up with great patience. New chemical dyes had been discovered by William Perkins in 1856, which was often used since the color range of magneta, vivid blues, violets and greens were needed in many of the pictures embroidered. Beads were often used in conjunction with Berlin wool work as were gold and silver threads.

Berlin wool work combined with beading was popular in Australia in the 19th Century for men’s slippers and smoking caps.

The attraction of Berlin wool work was that once an image was graphed it could be reproduced using needlework.

Ann Marion Fletcher, interior needlework painting in silk. Exhibition of Women’s Industries, Sydney (Australia) 1888. She embroidered her husband’s designs. She also embroidered the “ashes” bag in which the cricket ashes were sent to England in 1882. Note: cricket is a ball and bat game and the “ashes” are celebrated matches between Australia and the UK.

“Needle Painting” in silk of an interior by Judith Fletcher in 1907. She became an eminent Sydney photographer in the 1920s.

Incomplete 19th Century tapestry still on its frame at “Narryna”, Hobart (Australia).

Embroidery of the view from her house by Jean Elms, Maroochydore, Queensland (Australia).

Petipoint tapestry of “Mona Lisa” by Joyce Peppered, Glen Iris, Victoria (Australia) 1960s. The artist only had her eye to reproduce shades, folds and patterns in fabrics accurately.

Nevertheless, some of the most stunning historical Australian embroidery still rest within the decorative arts.

Shelf and mantle drapes embroidered on felt. Unknown maker. Tasmania (Australia) ca. 1860-1890.
Tasmanian flower species that are depicted in these vibrants works include: Eucalyptus globules, Comesperma voluble, banksia and clematis.
Courtesy of Van Diemen’s Land Memorial Folk Museum, Hobart (Australia).

[1] J. Isaacs, The Gentle Arts, Ure Smith Press, London (1991).
[2] Eds. A. Jeffs, W. Martensson, and P. North, Creative Crafts Encyclopaedia, Octopus Books, Oxford (1977).

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