The Embroiderers' Guild Queensland is a classic example of a grass-roots organisation that has endured thanks to the dedication and talents of its members. Started in 1964 by avid embroiderers, Mabel McAlister and Joan Selnes, the collective gathered momentum in members' homes until their numbers demanded a professional space. They are presently housed in a former Masonic Temple in Brisbane's Fortitude Valley, which they purchased in 1983.
In addition to the tuition and special commissioned projects they are known for, the Guild hold a substantial collection of dress and textiles. Items in the collection have been donated from Guild members and the broader community. As is the case with many dress and textiles collections in Queensland, many of the pieces featured here lack clear provenance, however their significance is undisputed.
These brightly coloured aprons are examples of what embroiderers call 'fancy work', and it is interesting to see detailed ornamentation applied to such a utilitarian garment.
In fact, a more practical apron would have been abandoned for these decorative ones as guests arrived for a dinner party. The change from your 'house' apron and into your 'hostess' apron is the reason why these have remained so pristine in subsequent decades— it is in name only that they represent a working garment.
Sewers would likely have ordered the pattern for these designs from a newspaper or magazine. They capture a particularly 1940s sensibility, with their novelty illustrations and bright colour palettes. They also feature topical or commemorative motifs that were relevant to their time. For example, the legendary Australian racehorse, Phar Lap, is pictured on the left. The Koala motif on the right-side apron suggests an emerging mid-century taste for Australiana.
These aprons would have made good practice for a variety of embroidery stitches, such as satin stitch on the design, and drawn thread hemstitching or embroidered edging.
A Sampler of Stitches
Embroidery samplers are important documents of embroidery history as they show the progression of styles, techniques, and the embroiderer's hand. They are also important documents of women's history, having played a major role in girls' and women's domestic lives. Indeed, girls made embroidery samplers as part of the school curriculum from the 18th to early 19th centuries—after which point they were reserved for professional embroiderers in training.
These samplers carry the names of the sewers, and the dates their work were produced, suggesting they were made by school-aged children: "Eliza Smith, aged 10 years, 1833"; "Margaret Stowell's work, November 22, 1830"; "Sarah Shirrow, aged 13 in the year of our Lord, 1805". The students' samplers were created to demonstrate their skill-level and knowledge, and for this reason, they feature Christian poems that acknowledge Christ as their teacher.
The bottom image is a small detail from an extraordinary sampler of Berlin wool work, which was a highly fashionable mode of embroidery in the 19th century, popularised by the Great Exhibition of 1851. This style of embroidery was a precursor to modern needlepoint or counted thread embroidery, where a single stitch such as cross-stitch is worked on a stiff open-weave foundation fabric. With many women experiencing more leisure time at the onset of industrialisation, these intricate forms of embroidery became increasingly popular.
The coloured wool here is still exceptionally bright, thanks to the development of synthetic, or aniline, dyes in the mid 19th century—another product of industrialisation. It's a very long piece that evidences a range of patterns and motifs rendered in an almost three dimensional way through use of shadow and highlights. The patterns would have first been sketched on grid paper, and once the designs were complete, they may have been applied to a range of decorative items, including bags, slippers, and cushions.
Few members of the Guild work with beads, however as beadwork shares a range of embroidery techniques, beaded pieces such as these beautiful handbags form a strong part of the collection. These handbags show the diversity of applications for beading and the changes in handbag forms over two centuries.
The long blue bag at the bottom of the image is known as a miser's purse, which was worn by both men and women from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Small items, primarily coins, were placed through a slit in the middle section, then held snugly at either end using the two small rings as closures. The rings were also a decorative feature made of quality metals or mother-of-pearl, and in this instance they used silver to echo the silver beading and tassels.
The much simpler closure of the draw-string has made for an enduring handbag form. Though it was embraced in the 16th century for its practicality, the drawstring has since been used in highly decorative items, such as in the two white and gold beaded purses shown here.
Ornamentation has traditionally been strongly linked to status, with intricate beadwork often representing affluence. However in the 20th century, simplicity was the mantra of modern design. The decadent period of the 1920s provided some exceptions, with ornate beaded purses very much in fashion again—as the colourful Egyptian revival style purse here shows.
The image on the right is a pattern for a beaded handbag. It reads 'BEAD BAG ROSE DESIGN/ 6/14 FRAME/ TRADEMARK PENELOPE'. Penelope was one of the leading pattern manufacturers, and these designs printed on canvas could be mail ordered or purchased at needlework departments by home-sewers around Queensland.
Tree of Life
The 'tree of life' is a central motif for many works of embroidery. Derived from traditional Indian textiles, the mythological pattern typically features flowers, designed from the imagination, which branch off undulating, vine-like plant stems. As opposed to the strict geometry of canvas work, for example, the tree of life motif allows for flowing, imaginative designs, and are thus excellent markers of the embroiderer's creativity.
Pictured here is a range of rich floral embroidery inspired by the tree of life. They predominately demonstrate crewel embroidery, a form of 'free embroidery' that employs a variety of stitches to complete the design, including chain stitch and satin stitch.
They are all quite old—from the 18th and 19th centuries—with the exception of the small image on the bottom right. It's a detail of a recent reproduction of the embroidery above, produced by one of the Guild members as a tribute to the beauty of the original, and a way to better understand the missing detail in the fading antiquity. The original may have had numerous lives, perhaps starting as a tablecloth or curtain, then becoming a rectangular drawstring bag, as it stands today. Given the skilled labour that goes into creating such intricate embroidery, it's no surprise that it was repurposed in this way.
The indigo piece at the bottom left is incredible example of this early plant-derived dye. It beautifully showcases the range of shades that can be produced by indigo by using different mordants—from the deep inky purples to the lighter greener tones. Indigo reached Europe from India via the silk trails as early as medieval times. It outstripped demand for another blue dye, woad, that was cultivated in Europe. Demand for this important commodity led to plantations in British occupied North America and later Bengal and Bihal, resulting in major conflicts in each colony. Synthetic indigo was developed in the mid-to-late 19th century.
A sewer's hand-made sketchbook from the early 20th century was donated to the Guild. It contained the expert notes, sketches, magazine cuttings and embroidery samples of a sewer presumed to be an embroidery teacher. Her notes are ordered, methodical and extensive—they chart a life's work.
The book itself is a valuable document on embroidery history, however it incidentally contained an item of even greater value. On the right is a 17th century embroidery sampler that was concealed in the pages of the book. It's in extremely good condition, and matches the quality of some of Europe's best collections of samplers. The sampler shows use of bright dyes and metallic thread, the latter typically found in the textiles of nobility and royalty, made from fine gold or silver wire wrapped around a silk thread.
Both the sampler and book would have served as reference points for the creators, as well as a demonstration of the embroiderer's skill, technique and knowledge.
Published in Issue 11, on March 25, 2014.