05 September, 2011

Embroiderers of the 18thc.

My quick and dirty search into slate frames, scroll frames, screws, and general embroidery in the 18thc. proved to be very interesting.

No, really! I'm not an embroiderer, so researching something I know hardly anything about was really neat. In the past, I had picked it up with silly cross stitch kits and kits with round hoops and Disney characters on them. But that's contemporary, and really all I had to do was follow the instructions and the color guide. Thinking about it now, it's all very similar to what I'll be doing on my practice workbag and the pocket. But at the same time, it's also different.

This very fast research is not a definitive answer to our problems as modern people reenacting the 18thc. I know that others have done better, and more, research on this subject. I just needed my questions answered; there are no plans to write a well-researched, thought-out article on the subject. What I needed to know was simple and brief:
  1. Is the scroll frame with screws really "pass-for-period"?
  2. Were there screws in the 18thc.?
  3. What other options do I have?
 I started out by Googling various search terms that encompassed "18th century," "embroidery," "embroiderer," "slate frames," "scroll frames," etc. When I started searching for information about embroiderers, I made sure to look into images as well. Not every painting from the time period is a portrait of the wealthy, many painters liked to look into the lives of people and paint those scenes. Those examples are a great insight as to how people lived that were not able to afford a portrait.

One of the links that came up in my various searches was for the "18th Century Notebook." It's a repository for links about material culture of the 18thc., but that is only one small section; this small piece is a part of a larger, earlier collection of links that focuses on the material culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Most of these links are to the author's own research, or other scholarly work. Huge bonus points!

By far, the section on embroidery was the best research yet. Six examples of embroidery, and three examples of tambour embroidery, greeted me. Combining this with some photos I took of the colonial sampler exhibit and young women in portraits doing embroidery at the MFA Boston, I felt pretty confident I could answer my questions easily.

First, I looked over my photos from the MFA. The colonial samplers were great to see what kind of things could be done, but gave me no definitive answer as to how they were embroidered: slate frame? scroll frame? nothing at all? Indeed, "nothing at all" is a possibility, and a British portrait from the MFA showed that:

Portrait of Horace Walpole's Nieces:
The Honorable Laura Keppel and
Charlotte, Lady Huntingtower.
MFA Boston, 2009.2783
Originally, I was getting a detail shot of her
gown, but you can see the embroidery, too!

Going back to the 18th Century Notebook, more examples of "nothing at all" appeared: "The Embroiderer" by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, 1740; "The Hard-Working Mother" also by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, 1740; and "Young Woman Embroidering" by Jean-Etienne Liotard. While two of these paintings may be 30 years before the time period I'm reenacting (I unfortunately cannot find the date for the third example), not much has really changed. The British portraits above proved that you didn't necessarily have to be wealthy to have a slate or scroll frame; what mattered most was your skill level.

Another link on the same page from the 18th Century Notebook caught my eye, and it went to two plates from Diderot. If you follow the 18th Century Stays blog, Hallie frequently looks to Diderot for answers or knowledge. The link took me to the translation project from the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago, and showed two plates: one had 2 women working on enormous slate frames, as well as their various tools, and the other had tambour and its tools. Unfortunately, the descriptions aren't translated, just the names of the plates, but it was quite interesting to look at.

Questions #1 and 2 hadn't really been answered, though. So, I decided to browse through Diderot, which you can do through the ARTFL Encyclopedia Project. I first went forward from the embroiderers plate and found nothing. Then, I went backwards, and came across the article called "FONDERIE EN CARACTERES D'IMPRIMERIE." It immediately follows the embroiderers plates. I speak hardly any French but I immediately knew that he was talking about a type foundry! Excitedly, I scrolled down the plates, zooming in whenever I could for a better look. And what do you know ...

SCREWS. AND SCREWS WITH WINGS. And yes that required all caps!

See figure 5 for the "winged" screws.

Diderot is awesome.

So, theoretically, my scroll frame from A.C. Moore could pass for period and no one could wag a finger at me. And, I discovered that there were plenty of screws in the 18thc., maybe not for everything or for a slate frame, but they existed. And, I found out that I did have another option if I didn't want to use the scroll frame.

So, what have I decided? Well, after reading some not-so-stellar reviews about the scroll frame I bought in the first place, and then seeing many paintings with women working sans frame, I think I'm going without! So the scroll frame will go back to A.C. Moore, and I believe I will have a very accurate impression for historic crafts day. Now, I need to do a little more research into crewel embroidery so I will be prepared for questions, and finish my gown!


  1. Nice work! For crewel embroidery, I find that the book "Beginner's Guide to Crewel Embroidery" is a helpful assistant to "18th Century Embroidery Techniques." The pictures are pretty straightforward in explaining stitches. http://www.amazon.com/Beginners-Guide-Crewel-Embroidery-Rainbow/dp/085532869X

  2. Thanks for the link! I'll be placing an order for it and "18th Century Embroidery Techniques" ASAP!