Thursday, November 22, 2012

Tambour Work

by Lauren Gilbert

Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame by Henri Drouais
Regency novels frequently refer to “tambour frames” and “tambour work”.  One novel contained an amusing story where a lady used a tambour frame as a weapon.   I assumed It was a form of embroidery but knew nothing about it.   I enjoy needlework and thought it would be interesting to see what it was.
Tambour embroidery was a very popular and fashionable craft.   Thought to have originated in China, it was supposedly introduced to France in the mid-18th century, and subsequently spread to England and western Europe.   Ladies occupied their time with tambour work as well as other needle crafts, while professionals used this technique on a larger scale until machines were able to produce similar effects.  The stitcher uses a needle with a hook, similar to a modern latch hook, and makes a chain stitch on fabric stretched in a round frame. 
The frame is a two-part object, with an inner frame over which the fabric is stretched with the exterior frame holding it in place.  It is called a tambour or tambour frame because it resembles a drum (“tambour” is French for drum).  It is similar to modern embroidery hoops, but much heavier.   (I can now see how it could actually do some damage if used to strike someone!)  The thread is held underneath with one hand, while the other hand pushes the hooked needle through the fabric to catch the thread and pull it through. 

This shows the position of the hands, and the sturdiness of the frame.

Bringing the thread back up through the same hole forms a loop, and the pattern evolves as each new stitch is formed near the previous stitch, catching the loop from that stitch.  The stitches form a continuous chain.  The hooks used were small, sometimes not much more than a wire bent at the tip, and produced a lacy design.   It was commonly used to produce white on white design, such as the flower and vine designs popular on white muslin.  Tambour work was used to embroider gowns, shawls, reticules and other wearable items.  Using the finest hooks and threads, the chain stitch would also lend itself to monogramming handkerchiefs.  Obviously, fabrics with a more open weave such as muslin, gauze and net lend themselves beautifully to tambour work, as can be seen in the illustration below: 

At Fontenoy Chateau

Tambour embroidery is now also referred to as tambour crochet.  Crochet work as we know it seems to have evolved from tambour embroidery at least in part, being worked as a continuous chain, using a hook and thread or yarn, without the background fabric.  Tambour embroidery is still done today.  There are numerous resources on the internet for supplies, hooks and frames, and videos of instruction.
de Dillmont, Therese.  THE COMPLETE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NEEDLEWORK.  Third edition.  1996: Running Press, Philadelphia, PA.  (Illustrations of the tambour hook (fig. 280), and the position of the hands with the frame (fig. 281) from p. 144 used with permission.)
The Embroidery Site.   “Tambour Work” by Megan McConnell.  Not dated.
Clan Iain Abrach~McClain blog.  “A Brief History of Crochet” by Catie Rua the Weaver.  Posted 11/1/2003.  
Design.Decoration.Craft blog.  “Tambour Emboridery Work.”  (no author shown.) Posted 7/22/2010.  
Illustrations of Madame de Pompadour and the Fontenoy tambour frame are from WikiCommons.  

Lauren Gilbert is the author of  HEYERWOOD: A Novel.  The heroine, Catherine, is a skilled needlewoman.  (More about the novel at )


  1. nice information. I have an early edition of Therese de Dillmont's book which has passed from my grandmother to my mother to me - I don't know whether my daughter will want it though!

  2. I used to do a lot of cross-stitch on a hoop -- had no idea the tambour frame was so much more substantial. Thanks so much for posting this.

  3. I am very glad that my article on Tambour Work was able to help you!

    1. A long-overdue thank you for your comment. Your article was indeed helpful.

  4. I'm glad that my article was able to help you.


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