Monday, January 6, 2014

Stitching, Stumpwork and the Stuarts

by Prue Batten

Embroidery – notionally and popularly a woman’s activity throughout history. And at no time more so than the seventeenth century when raised, also called embosted work, was the fashion de jour. Called stumpwork embroidery since the nineteenth century, raised work traces its roots back to the highly padded ecclesiastic work of the fifteenth century, but gradually the three dimensional stitching and unique subject matter became popular with the more affluent families of Stuart England.

Stumpwork relied heavily on detached buttonhole stitch, on wires and threads and metal threadwork and developed into a spectacular art form. Colours were bright, and a strict pattern was followed. Black outline on extant pieces of raised embroidery leads one to believe that stitchers actually worked from kits in much the same way we do today. There is evidence that embroidery pedlars would travel from wealthy house to wealthy house with scenes and subject matter tailored cleverly to the families visited. Wily pedlars would appeal to the vanities of the women of the house by including fashion of the times in the designs, ensuring a ready sale.

The kits were luscious – ‘silver and gold thread, fine gimp cords from Italy, lightly twisted silk, chenille threads, wools, satin ribbons, tiny brocade tassels, silk-covered purls, painted bullion, spangles, seed pearls, semi precious stones, (floral glass, amber, turquoise) coral, tiny seashells, slivers of mother of pearl, fine kid leather, peacock plumules, wrapped and looped vellum, sheets of mica and talc and scraps of treasured fabrics.’ (see references). I can speak from experience when I say the opening of a kit to reveal a heavenly rainbow of silks that lie softly but seductively in one’s hand, along with little containers of metallic thread and delicate beading is something that raises the heartbeat of any embroiderer.

Subject matter inveigled its way into political causes as well, royalist loyalties signified by Charles I’s caterpillars and Charles II’s butterflies, oaks and acorns. As in all aspects of the arts, flower species were used to define particular emotions and when an embroiderer merely wanted to throw all caution to the wind, they would stitch a cornucopia of fruits, birds and animals from pattern sheets that the same wily pedlar would hawk to the house, no attention at all being paid to the relative size and shape of subject matter!

The finished piece would be sent to a carpenter or joiner to be mounted into caskets, mirror-frames, trays and chests and many pieces exist in museums around the world. The artform faded from popularity in the eighteenth century when exploration began to introduce new and more fashionable modes of expression from across the globe.

However in the 1990’s stumpwork resurrected itself into a much sought after form of embroidery and in all countries of the world there are many examples of contemporary stitching based on those age-old techniques. I can also say from experience that it is an extremely exact form of embroidery requiring good light, good eyes and exemplary patience.

The first two requirements alone make one wonder how such magnificent work was ever achieved in the candle lit domains of the seventeenth century.

Nicholas J. Stumpwork Embroidery – a collection of fruit, flowers and insects for contemporary raised embroidery. Sally Milner Publishing Australia 1995
Stinton K & Needlework, Royal College of. Stumpwork Search Press Ltd UK 2011


A former journalist from Australia who graduated with majors in history and politics, Prue Batten is now a historical romance writer who is also a farmer, dog owner, gardener, embroiderer and all round seaman who is most at home in the sea, on the sea and by the sea.

In 2012, her historical fantasy A Thousand Glass Flowers won a silver medal with the Readers’ Favorites Annual Book Awards. In the same year, Gisborne: Book of Pawns (Book One of The Gisborne Saga) was awarded an honourable mention in the Golden Claddagh Book Awards and in 2013, the same book received an honourable mention in the RONE Awards USA. Book of Kings, the third and final novel in The Gisborne Saga will be released in 2014.

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1 comment:

  1. A fascinating post! Such extraordinary artwork decorating so many homes and churches, and items of clothing. Whenever I've seen pieces like this, I've often wondered about the many hands which brought the design to life.


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