Thursday, October 8, 2020

Stuart Stumpwork

By Prue Batten 

Embroidery – notionally and popularly a woman’s activity throughout history. Something that began as a necessity but developed to become a skill or an artform that an accomplished woman should possess.


And no time more so than the seventeenth century when raised, also called embossed 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. Gradually the three-dimensional stitching and unique subject matter of such embroidery became popular with the more affluent families of Stuart England. They needed to be affluent, because the supplies required to stitch the work (see below), were imported and pure. Nothing at all acrylic, plastic or cheap in those days.

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Stumpwork relied heavily on detached buttonhole stitch and needlelace stitch, also on wires for supporting the raised or three-dimensional appearance and on silk threads, metal purl and bead work. At the time, colours were bright, and a strict pattern was always 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 selling kits with scenes and subject matter tailored cleverly to those families. 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.

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The kits were luscious, and as mentioned, expensive. ‘Silver and gold thread, fine gimp cords from Italy, lightly twisted silks from the Continent and further afield, thick 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.’ To me, it sounds like expansive 17th century trade all stitched up in magnificent caskets, mirrors, frames and boxes and I can almost feel my spine tingling as I read the names of the components.


I can speak from experience when I say the opening of a kit to reveal a heavenly rainbow of silk threads 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 an embroiderer, be they Stuart or contemporary. I can also speak from experience when I say that stumpwork is an extremely challenging artform. It takes hours of concentration to create each of the individual raised elements before one can add them to the embroidery as a whole. 

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In the Stuart era, political causes inveigled their way into the subject matter – royalist loyalties being signified by Charles I’s caterpillars and Charles II’s butterflies, oaks and acorns. 

But as in all aspects of the arts, flower species were used to define particular emotions and perhaps even convey a message from the soul. 


And of course, when an embroiderer 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 being paid to the relative size and shape of subject matter which makes for some fascinating viewing today!

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The finished piece would then be sent to a carpenter or joiner to be padded and mounted into caskets, mirror-frames, trays and chests. Many pieces exist in museums around the world, but the V&A in particular is renowned for its casket collection. The sad thing is, of course, that the colours have faded through time and so one must use one’s imagination when seeing the collections.

The artform faded from popularity in the eighteenth century when exploration began to introduce new and more fashionable modes of stitchery from across the globe. Fashions and interests changed and women moved on but fashions of stitching tend to move in circles and 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 stunning examples of contemporary stitching based on those age-old techniques.

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Stumpwork is an extremely exacting form of embroidery which requires good light, good eyes and exemplary patience. The requirements of good light and good eyesight alone make one wonder how such magnificent work was ever achieved in the candlelit domains of the seventeenth century. In current times, most embroiderers will use a magnifying light along with magnifying lenses on their glasses. In the Stuart Era not so much…

I spent a number of years under the tutelage of one of the world’s best teachers, Jane Nicholas, and learned just how difficult stumpwork can be and how testing it is for one’s eyesight and patience.

I’m still chasing the skills needed to stitch a Fritillaria Meleagris…


References:

*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


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A former journalist from Australia who graduated with majors in history and politics, Prue Batten is now a cross-genre writer. Several of her books, including her historical fiction novels, have been privileged to win a number of awards.

To find out more about Prue:

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3 comments:

  1. Fantastic post! I have had the privilege of seeing the embroideries at the V & A, and visited the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court. Stumpwork is fascinating, and beautiful to see in person. Thank you, Prue.

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  2. Excellent post! You got across the history, but just as important, the exciting,tactile allure of the work. Your words delight the eye and cause fingers to itch to do and that hugely expands one's appreciation for the art form. Thank you!

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  3. WOW. When did they find the time? Oh, servants ...

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