The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw a flowering of the art of embroidery for secular use, particularly in England. During the Middle Ages, English artisans were famed throughout Europe for their embroidered church vestments. However, from the time that King Henry VIII severed relations with the Catholic church in 1534 and established the Church of England, the need for elaborately decorated religious vestments and furnishings for worship diminished greatly. But by the late sixteenth century, the taste for rich clothing and domestic decorations increased and a larger segment of society could afford to buy or make these luxury items during the relatively peaceful and prosperous late years of Elizabeth I‘s reign.
A surprisingly large number of fragile embroidered objects have survived in public and private collections. A variety of contemporary concerns and opinions about nature, faith, family relationships, and the monarchy are reflected in the embroidery designs (39.13.7). This was the favored mode of decoration for household furnishings and fashionable dress, as well as for ceremonial garments and decorations used at the late Elizabethan and early Stuart court.
High-quality embroidery was produced by a diverse group of people. While this skill is traditionally associated with femininity and the education of young girls, it was in fact practiced by both men and women, children and adults, paid professionals and talented amateurs. It is highly probable that almost all young girls were taught to work with a needle (64.101.1328; 64.101.1327). The type of work taught to a young girl was in large part dependent on her socioeconomic status. Young women who would have to produce their own garments and household textiles as well make a living learned plain and practical sewing techniques. Daughters of the gentry and nobility advanced to more elaborate decorative stitches, as part of their preparation for future roles as mistresses of large households. At a time when all textiles were made and decorated by hand, needlework skills were necessary at all levels of society. High praise was given to those young women who excelled in embroidery; it was seen as an indicator of their piety and diligence. For example, young Susanna Perwich (died 1661) was eulogized by John Batchiler in The Virgins Pattern for her many virtues, among which was the skill for creating convincingly lifelike pictures:
Wax, Straws and Gum,
Silks, Gems, and Gold, the total sum
Of rich materials she disposed
In dainty order, and composed
Pictures of men, birds, beasts, and flowers,
When leisure served at idle hours.
All this so rarely to the Life,
As if there were a kind of strife,
‘Twixt Art and Nature: Trees of fruits
With leaves, boughs, branches, body, roots,
She made to grow in Winter time,
Ripe to the eye, easy to climb.
Male professional embroiderers were members of the Worshipful Company of Broderers, chartered during Elizabeth I’s reign in 1561. Though guild membership was restricted to men, it is clear from surviving documents that women played an important role in embroidery workshops and as professionals in related textile trades, such as the production of ribbons and trimmings.
Sources for Design: Patterns Books and Prints
Two categories of design predominate during this period: those based on flora and fauna (both native and exotic), and figural designs illustrating narratives from the Bible.
The increasing production and popularity of printed pattern books for lace and embroidery in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries speaks to the popularity of decorative embroidery as a pastime among amateurs who could afford to buy books and excelled at fine needlework. The first pattern books were printed on the Continent and imported into England (21.15.2bis(1–48)). The first English pattern book was published in the 1590s, though the earlier examples are almost entirely copied from German and Italian works. Pictorial designs were also copied from Continental illustrated Bibles and decorative prints of secular subjects such as personifications of the Five Senses, the Four Seasons, or the four known continents (56.597.41).
Accessories of Dress
Ready-made fashionable accessories were available for purchase. New ways of shopping were developing by the early seventeenth century, evidenced by the success of London’s Royal Exchange (founded in 1565). An assortment of luxury goods were available in this center for commercial activities, including embroidered objects such as headgear, handkerchiefs, and small decorative bags. These bags and purses have survived in large numbers (29.23.15) and they were used for several purposes: as containers for fragrant herbs and perfumes to help mitigate the strong odors of daily life, and as deluxe gift wrapping for small presents. Yet, of all the accessories of dress that survive, gloves are the objects that are the most evocative of the individual who might have owned and worn them. Gloves were strongly associated with romantic devotion, and may have served as tokens of an engagement, as diamonds rings do today. Therefore, gloves were often decorated with symbols of devotion, such as a heart (28.220.3,.4). Not only were small accessories embellished with embroidery, but portraits from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries show entire garments covered with decorative stitching. These could reach a high degree of luxury, with the inclusion of stitches using metal threads, pearls, and precious stones. One particularly popular garment was a type of fitted bodice decorated with scrolling vines supporting multitudes of flowers, fruits, small birds, and insects (23.170.1). Variations on this scrolling vine design were also found on men’s and women’s caps as well as on household furnishings such as cushions.
In a time when furniture was relatively plain, textiles provided color and comfort to domestic interiors. All manner of household furnishings were decorated with embroidery, from bed sheets and pillows to mirrors and boxes. Tables were covered with carpets imported from the Middle East, small tapestries, or embroidered cloths known as table carpets (54.7.8). When the table was in use for a meal, the colorful embroidered carpet would often be covered with a linen cloth for protection.
Small boxes, called cabinets or caskets, were popular as luxurious storage containers in England and on the Continent. Collectors might use elaborate cabinets to store their collections of precious stones and natural materials. During the mid-seventeenth century, the fashion for three-dimensional embroidery, known as “raised work” or “embossed work,” began to appear on boxes, some of which we know were made by schoolgirls. English embroidered cabinets were usually fitted to hold writing instruments, letters, and other personal items (29.23.1).
Some of the most exuberant examples of raised work are found on mirror frames. Many of these compositions place a male and female on either side of the frame. Sometimes these couples are recognizable biblical characters, but often they are unidentified but fashionably dressed men and women who acknowledge each other across the expanse of the mirror glass. In the example illustrated here (64.101.1332), the surrounding landscape includes two manor houses, as well as other motifs that suggest this piece was made to celebrate a marital union.
Many embroidered items made for domestic use were embellished with depictions of biblical characters or religious narratives. Despite the Protestant prohibition against idolatry, narrative pictures featuring exemplary characters from the Old Testament were considered acceptable for their educational value. Narratives of popular biblical stories are some of the most frequent types of decoration found on household items such as cushion covers and small cabinets (64.101.1306). Biblical scenes that may seem obscure to a twenty-first-century audience would have been immediately recognizable to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century viewers for whom the Bible was required reading, and even to illiterate contemporaries who regularly attended church services or were familiar with popular prints from illustrated religious texts. A high proportion of embroidered household articles depict stories with female protagonists, reflecting the prominent role that women played in the production and consumption of these items (64.101.1325; 64.101.1335). The most popular narrative found in the surviving embroideries is that of Esther, a Jewish orphan who became a queen of ancient Persia. Esther was regarded as an ideal woman and wife—beautiful and obedient to her husband—but nonetheless brave and faithful in her service to God and her people.
Natural forms are ubiquitous in English embroidery of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Oversized fruits, lush flowers, and small frolicking animals are found among the protagonists in even the most harrowing biblical tales, and these motifs themselves often form the main subject of embroidery of the period (64.101.1284). Embroiderers and other craftspeople had not only needlework pattern books, but also numerous botanical and scientific texts from which to draw motifs and inspiration. The seventeenth century saw a huge increase in the availability of printed material, as well as in a general interest in gardening. Imported flowers, such as tulips, were increasingly common in English gardens. Grafting and other experiments in botany were the subject of popular literature (64.101.1305). The garden itself was already an accepted site for both entertainment and private contemplation (64.101.1314). Nature in all its variety was celebrated as a manifestation of God’s abundance and gift to humankind. English embroiderers responded to these themes enthusiastically by creating lively and imaginative compositions.