Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Embroidered coverlet

Attributed to A. P. Lalkers
Linen and cotton embroidered with silk
86 7/8 x 88 in. (220.7 x 223.5 cm)
Credit Line:
Mrs. Roger Brunschwig Gift, 1986
Accession Number:
Not on view
A number of diverse factors helped bring about the art-needlework movement that arose in late nineteenth-century America. With the beginning of women's suffrage came women's realization that financial independence was as important as political freedom. Since, as a rule, they were not trained to go into business of any type, needlework and similar handicrafts were most women's only resource for making their own money. Organizations such as the New York Women's Exchange, founded in 1878, were created to sell the products from a woman's hand on the open market and to allow them to make a living independently of their husbands or fathers for the first time. Concurrently—perhaps in an effort to appease women who, still firmly rooted to their homes, were beginning to acknowledge their frustration with their powerless state—a philosophy flourished that both confirmed a woman's "place" in her home and suggested that she could gain power in the world by bettering the lives of her husband and children through her artistic decoration of their home. It was believed that the culture and tranquility she fostered in the home through this type of decoration would in turn refine her family and motivate them to venture out and make a finer world. The opening of Japan to the West in 1853 and the ensuing influx of beautifully designed and ornamented Japanese objects into America, as well as the 1876 Centennial, which focused Americans on the rediscovery of their colonial roots, also contributed to the reawakening of many craftswomen's creative interests.
The decorators and designers of this period rebelled against the coarse and harshly colored Berlin woolwork and cross-stitch needlework that abounded at mid-century. They encouraged women to rediscover natural dyes and to produce stitchery based on earlier models. In the well-known volume of the time, titled "Art Embroidery, A Treatise on the Revived Practice of Decorative Needlework," authors M.S. Lockwood and E. Glaister suggested:
"Better models may be found in the freer work of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the early part of the present century. All embroidery on linen grounds, whether in silks or worsteds, is well worthy of attention. In this style are the massive quilts of the 17th century, with bold flower patterns overlaying an elaborately quilted ground, all done in silk.... There is also coarser work of the same century in crewel worsteds; some of these are very handsome and well designed. ... We can hardly study the needlework of the 18th century too much... it is because the work of this time is thoughtful and original that it is worthy of our earnest attention."
By the late nineteenth century, many women were sewing for pleasure rather than purely out of necessity, and a number of needlework companies were formed in response to their desire for more creative possibilities. Our 1898 coverlet and pillow sham are embroidered in silks following a pattern stamped in blue on the linen base. Many companies offered a wide variety of prestamped objects—mats, table scarves, throws, and coverlets—patterned primarily with semi-naturalistic flowers. The Brainerd & Armstrong Company of New London, Connecticut, for example, published a pattern book in 1899 titled "Embroidery Lessons," which gave women instruction on embroidery techniques and offered them a chance to purchase stamped goods for all the projects illustrated in the book. Although Brainerd & Armstrong's wares were available in stores throughout the United States and Canada, the catalogue gave women who lived outside of urban centers access to artistic goods. In their book, the company listed coverlet kits that produced goods that probably were quite similar to our piece:
"Bedspreads of our Silk-Faced Counterpanes.
The stamping is done on Cream Colored, Silk Faced Counterpane goods, made in our own mills. There is nothing more elegant than one of these spreads after the embroidery is completed. They make splendid wedding gifts. Design No. 200 consists of Fleur de Lis (or Iris) stamped on a spread 82 x 90- inches in size. Prices are: Stamped Spread, $12.50; Commenced Spread, $20.00; Finished Spread, $35.00."
Although our coverlet is not a completely original work of art, it yields interesting information about the popular trends and designs of the later years of the nineteenth century. The colors of the silks used to embroider this piece, for instance, resemble the colors of the naturally dyed wools used by Ruth Culver Coleman when she embroidered her coverlet (61.48.1) nearly 125 years earlier. The iris design shows the influence of Japanese art in both subject matter and form, while the curving whiplash lines of the border design owe their conception to the Art Nouveau style that was blossoming on the European continent. Although A. P. Lalkers, the coverlet's embroiderer, did not design the pattern herself, she had good reason to be proud of the painstaking job she had completed so beautifully.
[Peck 2015; adapted from Amelia Peck, "American Quilts & Coverlets in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," 2007]
Inscription: stitched in blue thread in top right: A. P. Lalkers / 1898 [only holes remain for the date]
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