History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

05 February 2009

Sewing boxes and embroidery

A few months ago I blogged about dumb luck in a box and shared my discoveries on those most gorgeous of items, portable Regency writing desks. While searching around for illustrations I came across some sewing boxes from the same period and decided that at some point I should blog about those too. Naturally that got me going online in all sorts of strange directions, and squeaking OMG I want that! And that! from time to time.

Somehow I doubt I'll take up embroidery but it was close, very close, for a few minutes.

Work, for genteel women, meant sewing or embroidery, and the idea of it being a suitable, sociable occupation for women lasted well into the twentieth century. Many projects required embroidery--handkerchiefs, linens. Sometimes men embroidered too--it was a favorite pastime of sailors. One of my aunts, who worked for the Admiralty in the 1940s, surprised her boss with his embroidery project in hand.

Here's a favorite scene from one of my favorite books--the first meeting between Seth and Flora Post in Cold Comfort Farm (I have just bought yet another replacement copy to have it disappear into my daughter's reading maw).
Flora saw at once that he was not the kind that could be fobbed of with offers of tea. She was for it.

"What's that you're making?" he asked. Flora knew that he hoped it was a pair of knickers. She composedly shook out the folds of the petticoat and replied that it was an afternoon tea-cloth.
Here's a sewing box from c. 1800, still with its original pink paper lining, exquisitely made. The box is maple with a hand-colored print on the top.

The sewing tools are made of Tunbridge ware whitewood, a process of wood mosaic originally developed to make souvenirs for those visiting the spa at Tunbridge Wells, Kent. More about Tunbridge ware here.

Does anyone know what the little bottles would have held? Images are from Antique Boxes at the Sign of the Hygra in London.

One very popular form of embroidery work was embroidery with narrow silk ribbons instead of thread--fast, simple, and decorative. The Jane Austen Centre, Bath, magazine has a great article about it here. If you wish to explore further, Threads published an article on the basic stitches and you can buy supplies at ribbonsmyth.com.

An early form of needlepoint, Berlin woolwork, was becoming popular in the Regency, particularly to make the uppers for slippers, which would then be taken to a shoemaker to have the soles attached. These child's slippers, possibly American, date from around 1840, although Berlin woolwork peaked in England with the 1851 Great Exhibition.

Here are some more gorgeous sewing boxes at Hampton Antiques and Gerald Mathias and some great pictures of this tortoiseshell needle box here--yes, it looks like a snuff box until you open it up, and it has its original paper lining.

Here's an article about the development of the famous Mountmellick whitework embroidery industry, started early in the nineteenth century in the northern Irish town of the same name. Wikipedia has an entirely different set of dates, so take your pick...

Do you embroider or collect antique linens? Do you have any books or online sources you'd like to share?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Loevely, Janet. I've hardly sewed a stitch in my life but I would love to own a beatiful sewing box.

I spent a great summer in Tunbridge Wells working with a veterinarian about 20 years ago and NEVER knew there was a thing called Tunbridge Ware! Cool.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

What beautiful sewing boxes! I would love to have one of those, but I think they might cost more than my last car!

WHEN I have the time, I love to sew. I tat, cross-stitch, quilt, candlewick, knit and do a variety of embroidery styles. I used to do quite a bit of needlework, but since I started writing AND I have a full-time job, I have limited myself to one quilt per year. Each year it is for a different family member and they get to choose the pattern. Not my smartest idea as they often don't realize just how hard some of these patterns are!!

6:52 PM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

You TAT, Louisa?! Quick, tell us what it really is.

I'd love to own one of those boxes too. And some of the embroidery scissors are gorgeous, in the shape of stylized birds,

7:14 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Janet, those are beautiful, and inspiring! I've done needlework all my life. I learned how to sew and embroider in grade school (a private school in NYC) and my maternal grandmother also taught me embroidery and got me started on knitting and needlepoint. I still knit, crochet, and do needlepoint (I also design and handpaint some of my canvases) when ever I have what I laughingly refer to as "free time." I used to bring my needlework to auditions and jury duty and managed to produce a lot of sweaters and pillows that way! That said, I've still got a William Morris print needlepoint rug canvas sitting on a huge frame that is taking up half my dining room and collecting dust, and I haven't had time to do a single stitch since we moved here more than 2 years ago!

5:49 AM  
Blogger Amanda McCabe/Amanda Carmack/Laurel McKee said...

What a great post, Janet! I really, really want one of those boxes for my cross-stitch projects (am currently in the middle of an Elizabethan-style sampler--I'm sure having an antique sewing box would make the work go faster...)

6:45 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

LOL, Janet! Tatting is making lace, for lack of a better term. You do it with a device called a shuttle and your fingers. My great aunt taught me. I learned most of my needlework skills from her. She was a seamstress for almost 80 years and was famous in Alabama for her draperies and window treatments.

Essentially tatting is passing the shuttle through and around the thread stretched around your fingers. My brothers call it complicated knot tying.

I think it was used primarily to make doilies and table runners. My prized possession is a double bedspread my great aunt tatted. I use it as a canopy over the bed as I wouldn't dare let anyone sit on it. It is too delicate.

6:59 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'm a fairly deft hand at most hand-sewing skills, but I have to admit I'm not a great embroiderer, mores the pity. I know a few people who are simply AMAZING. There’s a costumer named Laura Mellin who is simply OUT OF CONTROL. Here’s a link to her site. She’s done recreations of all kinds of 16th century embroidered garments that are simply mind-blowing.


7:30 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Well, I can no more sew, embroider, knit, or tat than I can fly -- but I crave the objects and I loved this post from the bottom of my gleeful, fetishistic heart (fetishism being the secret F-word for writers of erotic historical fiction, or at least this one).

In fact, I've already seen those lovely sewing scissors you mention, Janet, in my erotic writers' imagination -- they're shaped like a hummingbird, with fine steel blades for a beak. A very young Kit Stansell uses them in The Slightest Provocation, to cut Mary's hair so she can accompany him to boxing matches and other male-only entertainments, dressed as a boy.

7:55 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Janet! Love the sewing boxes (and am already thinking about ways to hide a secret document in one, which shows how my writer's mind works :-). I did a fair amount of embroidery and needlepoint as a preteen, inspired by my love of historical fiction. I wouldn't say I was great at it, but it was fun, and definitely good for research.

11:41 AM  
Blogger snowy said...

I am just starting to make myself a sewing box and found this article inspiring - many thanks.
I do embroider, but still have a lot to learn. I want to embroider fabric to cover all the sides and top, so will let you know when I get some done.
My neice makes fantastic historical costumes - see classic-costume.co.uk if you want a look.

2:36 AM  

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