Tag Archives: needlework

Early Southern Stitchery at MESDA, Winston-Salem, NC

Last weekend it was my great fortune to attend the MESDA Spring Seminar, Stitching a Southern Identity: Defining Female Culture in the Early South. MESDA is the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, and is located at the southern edge of Old Salem, a Moravian town dating to 1766. The museum is located in a converted Kroger supermarket, and dates to 1965.

I signed up for this seminar on a whim. I’d planned to go to Williamsburg, VA for the Costume Society symposium, but a conflict prevented me from getting to make that trip. So this was a bit of a consolation prize, but as it happens, I’m really glad things turned out this way. I was pushed out of my comfort zone of 20th century clothing, and into a field about which I probably knew less than any of the other participants, at least it seemed that way by the learned conversations going on around me. And I can’t remember ever learning so much in two short days.

As the title suggests, this was all about the manufacture and decoration of textiles, mainly for use in the home. Most of the research presented was on samplers and quilts, but we also saw quite a bit of  other types of embroidery and of weaving. Without a doubt, my favorites were the samplers.

The word sampler tends to pull up an image of a school girl practicing her stitchery, and that’s a valid thought. But what was so surprising to me was the skill these girls exhibited in their work. Because girls tended to not only sign samplers, but also recorded their ages, we can see just how young these stitchers were. Even eight-year-olds were doing embroidery that would put me to shame!

Today samplers are valued not just as charming reminders of past childhoods, but also as historical documents. A girls would often include the names of family members, where she lived, important dates. But what is really interesting is how researchers today can look at a sampler and see so much more than the bare facts. This unusual sampler was stitched by Salley Keais, in 1793 in Washington, NC.

Researcher Marquita Reed was able to piece together a very good family history, just from the names and dates on the sampler and through searches in period newspapers. Her research helped explain the mermaid and the ship as it was found that hers was a family in the shipping business.

Another great sampler is this one by Sarah Hatton McPhail of Norfolk, VA. Other samplers of a very similar composition, including one by Sarah’s sister, were known to have been made in the Norfolk area. This tends to suggest that this was the style taught by the girls’ teacher. The fact that similar samplers were produced in the same school is a big help in identifying samplers, and has even led to the discovery of multiple samplers made under the direction of a particular teacher.

This close-up shows just how skilled Sarah was. She was eight years old at the time.

Click to enlarge

This remarkable sampler is part mourning tribute, part family register, and part scrapbook. The stitcher, Mary Ann Colboard, made this sampler in 1821 in Charleston, SC. It is thought that they are mourning the death of Mary Ann’s stepfather. The church is easily recognizable as St. Philips, where Mary Ann was married the year after she completed this work.

We also learned about quilts and other bed coverings. This is part of an album quilt. Each square was made by a different woman, and then put together and quilted by Catherine Palmer, near Charleston in 1848.

The squares were appliqued. Each maker would cut out a design from printed chintz (often combining elements from three of more different prints) and then stitch the new design to a square of cotton. Then it would be assembled and quilted.

Even though this quilt is attributed to Catherine Palmer, it is very possible that she had help in the form of her enslaved workers. Documenting the work of enslaved persons is extremely difficult as their labor was an expected part of the household work and was not often noted. However, careful examination of quilts often reveals that the stitching was done by more than one hand. It stands to reason that these other hands could have been enslaved.

Weaving was another task often carried out by enslaved workers. Again, curators and researchers take what they know about a piece and try to determine whether or not it is possible that the item was made by an enslaved person.

It’s not possible for all the museum’s textile holding to be displayed all the time, but I was really surprised when the curatorial associate opened this cupboard to reveal a trove of handwoven coverlets and blankets.

I was surprised to see a few wallpaper covered bandboxes. For some reason I tend to associate them with the North, maybe because they are so seldom seen for sale here in the South.

Boys of the Powell Family by Samuel Moore Shaver, Knoxville, TN, circa 1850-1869

Just so you won’t get the idea that MESDA is just needlework, here are some details from their great collection of paintings. You will also find furniture, pottery, silverwork, clocks, books, woodwork and architectural elements, and ironwork.

I’ll close with this portrait of Mary Hawksworth Riddell and her daughter, Agnes Riddell. It was painted in the early 1790s by Charles Peale Polk (of the famous Peale family of artists).

I love that this sweet picture includes a basket of needlework.

My thanks to MESDA for such a rewarding experience. You can see more of their collection online.

1 Comment

Filed under Museums, North Carolina, Road Trip, Textiles

1929 Beach Pajamas as Seen in Needlework Magazine

I love finding old Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines from the 1920s, but of just as much importance to my research are the publications that were geared toward the average American homemaker. A lovely reader of this blog recently sent a bundle of Needlework magazines to me. I was really happy to find this article in the August, 1929 issue.

You can read the description of how the big New York department stores set up a beach mise-en-scène in store, complete with beach chairs and sales girls in beach overalls. Today we assume that overalls are a bifurcated garment, but I can’t tell if that was true from the text. An overall could simply be a dress-like cover-up. I’ve seen these in photos of the period.

I was most interested in the shape of the pants legs. In photos and in clothing catalogs dating to the second half of the 1920s, pajamas worn on the beach were pretty much the same pajamas worn in the boudoir, and they had straight legs. Here we see the legs starting to widen. And no longer is the pajama a garment that crossed over from the bedroom to the beach. This is a garment that was designed just for the beach, with all its sailor inspired references.

Also interesting is the emphasis on the waist. If I had found this drawing without the date of 1929 firmly printed on the page, I would have guessed it was from 1932. It does pay to keep an open mind!

 

3 Comments

Filed under Collecting, Fashion Magazines, Proper Clothing, Sportswear

How to Turn Needlework into an Adventure

I think most people associate needlework with a woman sitting quietly, concentrating on her task.  But to think of it as an adventure?  This little book from 1958 sets us all straight.  It was written by Dorothy Dunbar Graef, and illustrated by Betsey Bates.  It appears that this is the only book penned by Graef.  Bates was a painter of quaint scenes that ended up on collectors plates.

The book is a combination of needlework history and crafts projects.  I imagine that most of the readers skipped right past the “in the old days” talk and went right to the fun stuff.  Or maybe I was the only kid that did that sort of thing.

The illustrations are cute in that mid-century sort of way that is so popular right now.  Looking back at it I can see that we Baby Boomers were lucky to have grown up with a design aesthetic that over time, has held up well.  These drawings still have a crisp, modern look.

But probably the most interesting thing about this book is that it is, for the large part, not gender specific.  You expect a book about sewing and embroidery and quilting to be aimed directly at girls, but here a large attempt was made to include boys in the adventure.  And this was during a time when boys would never have considered signing up for home ec in school.

But can you imagine all the clothes that were cut up in 1958 to make rugs?  My mother took a rug braiding class in the late 1960s, and one of their sources of wool was old clothes.  She ran an on-going rummage sale for our church, and all the 1940s and 50s wool skirts that were donated went straight to the rug class.  There was a stiff competition for the skirts with the rug hooking class.  It’s a miracle any wool survived this crafting craze.

At first I thought this was a knitting machine, but it actually a little loom. (Note that cool doggie)

What every guy wanted – a vest with appliqued and embroidered Christmas trees to match his best girl’s skirt.

My gosh, this could be a page straight out of an etsy crafter’s lookbook.

Creativity was encouraged.

And finally, I’m sorry about the fuzzy photo, but I just had to show this drawing with the girl in the poodle skirt.  Yep, that was the Fifties!

 

13 Comments

Filed under Sewing