Of Modern Embroidery

If we wish to arrive at a true estimate of the value of modern

embroidery, we must examine the work being sold in the fancy-work shops,

illustrated in ladies' newspapers or embroidered in the drawing-rooms of

to-day, and consider in what respect it differs from the old work such

as that exhibited in the South Kensington Museum.

The old embroidery and the modern differ widely--in design, in colour,

and in material; nor would any one deny that a very large proportion of

modern work is greatly inferior to that of past times.

What, then, are the special characteristics of the design of the present


Modern design is frequently very naturalistic, and seems rather to seek

after a life-like rendering of the object to be embroidered than the

decoration of the material to be ornamented.

Then again it may be noted that modern designs are often ill adapted to

the requirements of embroidery. This is probably because many of the

people who design for embroidery do not understand it. Very often a

design that has been made for this purpose would have been better suited

to a wall paper, a panel of tiles, or a woven pattern. The designer

should either be also an embroiderer or have studied the subject so

thoroughly as to be able to direct the worker, for the design should be

drawn in relation to the colours and stitches in which it is to be

carried out.

The more, indeed, people will study the fine designs of the past, and

compare with them the designs of the art-needlework of the present, the

more they will realise that, where the former is rich, dignified, and

restrained, obedient to law in every curve and line, the latter is

florid, careless, weak, and ignores law. And how finished that old

embroidery was, and how full! No grudging of the time or the labour

spent either on design or needlework; no scamping; no mere outlining.

Border within border we often see, and all the space within covered up

to the edges and into the corners. Contrast with this very much of our

modern work. Let us take as an example one piece that was on view this

summer at a well-known place in London where embroidery is sold. It is

merely a type of many others in many other places. This was a threefold

screen made of dark red-brown velveteen. All over it ran diagonal

crossing lines coarsely worked in light silk, to imitate a wire trellis,

with occasional upright supports worked in brown wool, imitating knotty

sticks. Up one side of this trellis climbed a scrambling mass of white

clematis; one spray wandering along the top fell a little way down the

other side. Thus a good part of the screen was bare of embroidery,

except for the trellis. Naturalism could not go much farther, design is

almost absent, and the result is feeble and devoid of beauty.

If we turn now to material, we shall find that embroidery, like some

other arts, depends much for its excellence on the minor crafts which

provide it with material; and these crafts supplied it with better

material in former times than they do now. A stuff to be used as a

ground for embroidery should have endless capacities for wear. This was

a quality eminently possessed by hand-spun and hand-woven linen, which,

with its rounded and separate thread, and the creamy tint of its partial

bleaching, made an ideal ground for embroidery. Or if silk were

preferred, the silks of past centuries were at once thick, firm, soft

and pure, quite free from the dress or artificial thickening, by whose

aid a silk nowadays tries to look rich when it is not. The oatmeal

cloth, diagonal cloth, cotton-backed satin, velveteen and plush, so much

used now, are very inferior materials as grounds for needlework to the

hand-loom linens and silks on which so large a part of the old

embroidery remaining to us was worked. And so very much of the beauty of

the embroidery depends on the appropriateness of the material.[1] Cloth,

serge, and plush are not appropriate; embroidery never looks half so

well on them as on silk and linen.

It is equally important that the thread, whether of silk, wool, flax, or

metal, should be pure and as well made as it can be, and, if dyed, dyed

with colours that will stand light and washing. Most of the silk, wool,

and flax thread sold for embroidery is not as good as it should be. The

filoselles and crewels very soon get worn away from the surface of the

material they are worked on. The crewels are made of too soft a wool,

and are not twisted tight enough, and the filoselles, not being made of

pure silk, should never be used at all, pretty and soft though their

effect undoubtedly is while fresh. Though every imaginable shade of

colour can be produced by modern dyers, the craft seems to have been

better understood by the dyers of times not very long past, who, though

they may not have been able to produce so many shades, could dye colours

which would wash and did not quickly fade, or when they faded merely

lost some colour, instead of changing colour, as so many modern dyes do.

The old embroidery is worked with purer and fewer colours; now all kinds

of dull intermediate tints are used of gold, brown, olive, and the like,

which generally fade rapidly and will not wash. Many people, admiring

old embroidery and desiring to make their new work look like it at least

in colour, will use tints as faint and delicate as the faded old

colours, forgetting that in a few years their work will be almost

colourless. It is wiser to use strong good colours, for a little fading

does not spoil but really improves them.

So we see that many things combine to render embroidery as fine as that

of the past difficult of production, and there is nothing more against

it than machinery, which floods the market with its cheap imitations, so

that an embroidered dress is no longer the choice and rare production it

once was; the machine-made imitation is so common and so cheap that a

refined taste, sick of the vulgarity of the imitation, cares little even

for the reality, and seeks refuge in an unornamented plainness. The

hand-worked embroidery glorified and gave value to the material it was

worked on. The machine-work cannot lift it above the commonplace. When

will people understand that the more ornament is slow and difficult of

production, the more we appreciate it when we have got it; that it is

because we know that the thought of a human brain and the skill of a

human hand went into every stroke of a chisel, every touch of a brush,

or every stitch placed by the needle, that we admire, enjoy, and wonder

at the statue, the picture, or the needlework that is the result of that

patience and that skill; and that we do not care about the ornament at

all, and that it becomes lifeless always, and often vulgar, when it has

been made at little or no cost by a machine which is ready at any moment

to produce any quantity more of the same thing? All ornament and pattern

was once produced by hand only, therefore it was always rare and costly

and was valued accordingly. Fashions did not change quickly. It was

worth while to embroider a garment beautifully, for it would be worn for

years, for a lifetime perhaps; and the elaborately worked counterpane

would cover the bed in the guest-chamber for more than one generation.

These remarks must be understood to apply to the ordinary fancy-work

and so-called "art-needlework" of the present day. Twenty years ago

there would have been no ray of light in the depths to which the art of

embroidery had fallen. Now for some years steady and successful efforts

have been made by a few people to produce once more works worthy of the

past glories of the art. They have proved to us that designers can

design and that women can execute fine embroidery, but their productions

are but as a drop in the ocean of inferior and valueless work.



[1] But cf. "Of Materials," p. 365.

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