Painting of girl embroidering, by Georg Friedrich Kersting, ca. 1814*
image licensed under Creative Commons

Last week, I posted a blog about my embroidery. And I realized that it was a BIG part of a historical woman’s world … even as late as the 1930’s and 1940’s, embroidery and sewing was a required part of the curriculum for women. Heck, even when I went to high school in the 70s, all the girls had to take Home Economics and learn how to cook and sew in order to get their diploma – it was as required back then as English and Math! The boys of course had to take Shop – electrical, wood or metalworking, or auto mechanics. Me being the forward thinker I was back then took both Home Ec and Auto Mechanics. But I digress…

If you’re writing historicals, your heroine would definitely know how to embroider – especially if she’s upper class. Sewing was considered a ‘gentle art’ and ‘idle hands were the devil’s workshop’ so young girls would be set to sewing samplers with biblical sayings on them, like the one on the left – the alphabet, and a biblical saying surrounded by a floral design. Colonial samplers often had a house in the centre with a woman standing on one side, a man (or a tree) on the other. Often the tree would be an apple tree with a serpent carefully hidden in the picture. They also embroidered monograms on pillowcases and handkerchiefs (remember them? I love that scene in You’ve Got Mail where Meg Ryan has to explain to Tom Hank’s aunt (who is all of 7 years old) what a hanky is.) They’d start off with simple stitches such as the satin stitch, stem stitch, running stitch and the lazy daisy, with the stitches gradually gaining more complexity until they were doing stitches such as bullion knots and stump work. (I’ll explain about them in a different post – probably in an article I’ll put up on my website eventually.)

The type of embroidery that your upper class heroine would be doing is generally done on finer linens – the best is made in Ireland from flax. The lower classes might use rougher home made fabrics which would have a lot more slubs or bumps that would distort the weave of the fabric, and therefore change the pattern of the embroidery. A lower class girl who showed an aptitude might earn money for the family by doing embroidery for the local modiste or seamstress – adding the beads to a lady’s dress, or embellishments to their undergarments. If you go to local museums, you’ll see that pioneer women recycled potato sacks, cutting them up and embroidering them in an effort to beautify their surroundings. I remember reading one historical where the heroine worked as a governess. Since she was of a ‘lower’ class and was to set an example for her charges, she had to dress in very plain clothes so she couldn’t adorn her clothes. So she spent her free time in the evening embroidering her stays and undergarments – much to the delight of the hero who discovered her handiwork when he undressed her.

If you have your hero walking in on your heroine while she’s sewing, or perhaps she’s in a group with other women as they discuss the latest on dits, you need to know what she’ll have to hand to add that little bit of realistic detail.

A good embroiderer will have a selection of needles (they can grow dull, and if you get into a real tangle, snap usually at the eye.) There are different sizes and types of needles according to what fiber she’s working with. If she’s beading – a beading needle is long and very fine, and the eye doesn’t enlarge like a regular needle does as it has to get through the tiny hole of the bead. She may use a wooden hoop (there are two an inner hoop and an outer hoop to stretch the fabric and keep it in place for consistency in her stitches), a lump of beeswax to run the threads through so they’ll sit properly. (Threads must lie side-by-side to reflect the light evenly, if they twist, it changes the light’s reflection. I’ve known other embroiderers to pull out magnifying glasses to make sure their (or my) threads are lying properly. That’s how they’re judged in contests. And you thought writing contest judges were tough!)

If she’s in late Georgian or Regency times or later, your heroine will have a tiny pair of gold scissors – often in the shape of a stork. Many times the embroiderer will tie a piece of lace or embroider a small square with a saying and attach it to the scissors and pin them to her dress so she doesn’t lose them. Or she may wear a ‘chatelaine’ which is almost like a priest’s stole with a pocket for her scissors.

If she’s in medieval times, she’ll have a very small, very sharp knife. She’ll also have a sewing chest of various threads of either wool, cotton or silk, depending upon what she’s sewing, and how rich they are. And she’ll ALWAYS sit near the window with the best light. She may even change rooms as the sun moves from one side to another. Even if you write in later Victorian times where they did have electrical light, an embroiderer always uses real light as it’s easier on the eyes and doesn’t change the hue of the threads the way incandescent lights do. Take a look at the picture at the top – see how she’s sitting right by the window? Also, you’ll see she’s not using a hoop but stretcher bars placed on a floor frame. This is used for larger pieces of embroidery and holds the fabric taut. This helps the threads to lay properly, but using a frame is very unwieldy when you’re starting or ending a thread. You have to keep flipping the frame over. Also, you’ll notice a small basket of threads on the right, and her scissors lying on the fabric.

She’ll have a variety of threads, though they were much more limited than we are today. To the left is a picture of just one of my sewing boxes – yes, it’s actually a fishing tackle box. I have two filled with cottons and silks and beads. The picture to the right is just some of my silks – you’ll see that they come in all different sizes of skeins as well as colors. Some are considered half skeins (those in the box), and some are on bobbins (hard to see, I know) but back ‘in the old days’ those bobbins would be made of ivory or wood. If you follow the link for the Regency Box, they’re made of ivory. There’s also a tiny wooden hoop in there, though I have multiple sizes of hoops. And the green bit of fabric at the top right, is a pouch I made to hold my needles so I can take them with me without them jabbing me or falling out. (This is NOT how I store them by the way, they’re normally neat, but I was trying to show the variety.)

The colors were achieved by using plant dyes in the earlier days and did not have the luxury of being consistently the same color for each batch. Some of the dyes were quite acidic and would end up causing the fibres to disintegrate far quicker than they normally would – that’s just one of the reasons why it’s so hard to find examples of sewing from ages past. Anyway, back to dyes, it still applies today. I remember doing a petit point keyboard runner (yes, it looks like a keyboard and sits under my keyboard … I’m a geek in SO many ways. With a one-inch square remaining, I ran out of the blue I’d been using for the border. Trouble was, the store had run out of that particular dye lot, and though I got the same color code, it wasn’t exactly the same color and to this day I can tell the spot where I used the different thread.

Don’t forget those little threads that your heroine snips off have to go someplace – often women kept (and still do keep) jars to hold the remnants because you never know when you’ll need that particular shade for just one or two stitches. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve gone to the store and found multiple threads clinging to my top or my jeans. Perhaps your heroine might have that problem too – especially if you want to make her look a little ditzy.

Taken from WikiMedia commons. "I, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In some countries this may not be legally possible; if so: I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law." addition to working on linen, needlework can also be done on a canvas – it’s still threads with a warp and a weft, but it’s generally stiffer and the threads have more space between them for thicker fibers. It’s used for heavy-use items – table runners, fire screens, upholstery. Older ladies (even today) often switch to canvaswork because it’s easier to see the holes than it is with linen. So if you’ve got a group of women sitting together sewing, you may see the young girls sewing samplers (if they’re ever allowed to be with the grown ups, which they probably rarely were unless perhaps it’s a special occasion), younger women making fancy designs that can be put into lockets, sewing table runners and doing fancy embroidery, along with sewing baby clothes, etc, while the older women (whose eyesight isn’t as good) work with wools and heavier fibers on pillows and firescreens like the one to the left. By the way, firescreens aren’t used to shield a woman from sparks jumping from the fire, but from the heat which often melted their makeup.

And not to be sexist, I should mention that some men embroider too, though I doubt you’d have your hero in Regency England indulging in such a pastime. But if he’s a pirate, or a captain on a Royal Navy ship or for the East India trading company, some of his sailors – bored with long stretches away from home – may have embroidered as a means to kill time. (And this I speak from experience, my grandfather – a Royal Navy Mechanics’ Mate who worked himself up to the rank of Midshipman – used to embroider.) Sailors in the 19th century used to embroider their ‘woolies’ or undergarments.(Source and pic here) Monks sewed kneelers, vestments and altar pieces for their abbeys. I’ve heard that fishermen often joined their family in creating lacework as a way to supplement their income in off seasons. Also, if your novel is set in India or Asia, you’d better check your cultural mores because very often men were not only the tailors, but the professional embroiderers. And, I hate to admit this, but the men that I know who embroider seem to have a finer hand that some women. They have a totally different approach to it – almost a scientific approach.

That said, you don’t have to have your heroine embroider well! She can hate it, get confused in her counting which throws the whole design off, get her threads tangled up, use threads that don’t blend in color because it’s from a different dye lot, cut the wrong threads if she’s doing hemstitching or pulled thread work, prick her finger and get blood on the linen, or stitch a design or perhaps a saying on a sampler that sets tongues wagging.

If your heroine is of a working class who must suddenly hobnob with the gentry, you could ‘show the difference in class’ by having her embarrassed by the state of her hands and what it does to her threads, especially if she’s using silk and hasn’t before. You don’t realize how rough your hands are until you handle silk thread – it’ll snag and pull until the fibers stick out in all directions when it’s supposed to lie smooth and reflect the light. And it’s too expensive to just ‘throw away.’ (I have a really easy, cheap and natural way to get your hands baby soft – but I think I’ll save that for my website when I finally get it going.)

And if you really want your heroine to have a bad day, get her frustrated by letting her cat (or the heroes’ cat perhaps) get into her sewing basket and start chewing on the last of the silk threads that she absolutely has to have to finish Lady XXX youngest daughter’s come-out dress that she’s already been paid for and now doesn’t have the money – or time – to replace. Or have moths get into her linens or wools (I just discovered that had happened when I opened up the Rubbermaid box I keep my finished works in – talk about a YIKES moment.)

Oh, and if you want to get the blood out of that snowy linen – best way is by licking or sucking it out. Yes, I know it’s gross but saliva has a compound in it that will remove blood from cloth where soap – especially the harsh soaps of historical times – couldn’t.

*The work of art depicted in this image and the reproduction thereof are in the public domain worldwide. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held byZenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Historical Heroines pasttimes
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4 thoughts on “Historical Heroines pasttimes

  • March 3, 2008 at 10:01 am

    Seriously you need to do an online course through HHRW on Historical Needlework etc.,

  • March 3, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    Leah, what a wonderful post. I agree with Amy, you should be doing online courses with this!

    (although I’m dying to know the secret to soft hands!)

  • March 4, 2008 at 9:32 am

    I REALLY enjoyed this post, Leah. Could I link to it on my sidebar? What a goldmine!

  • March 4, 2008 at 9:43 am

    Amy – This is such a high level overview …there are a LOT of webpages out there with information about needlework in Regency times on it, though maybe not from the needleworkers’ view. Plus I hesitate about how much information to give because really, you should use just little bits to add depth to your character. I’d hate to read a book describing how she’s sewing in detail. Talk about b-o-r-i-n-g.

    Sue, thanks! Sending you the recipe privately 😉

    Julia – Certainly you can link this post to your site. Since I’m always looking for fodder for future blogs, is there anything else you’d like to know about?

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