Exquisite Threads: English Embroidery 1600s – 1900s at NGV

Glorious Embroidered Textile

Detail: ENGLAND Apron (1730s) silk, silk thread, silver-plated brass thread, cardboard filling 43.2 (centre front) 24.0 cm (waist flat) Purchased, 1970 courtesy National Gallery of Victoria

Using a needle and thread to create an image on the surface of a piece of fabric throughout the ages from antiquity to today has, in many instances, been a powerful transmitter of perceptions about wealth, status and power.

Cherished possessions, textiles that were embroidered eventually became a measure of the development of society from our primitive past to the penultimate sophistication of style today.

Rendered with exquisite threads mostly of silk, as well as silver and gold, embroidered textiles were integral aspects of the fine established tradition of arts and crafts in England for centuries.

Exquisite Threads: English Embroidery 1600s – 1900s is an exhibition coming to the National Gallery of Victoria International from 2nd April, 2015. They will be showcasing more than 40 intricately detailed pieces drawn from the NGV’s embroidery collection, the largest in Australia.

The aim of this exhibition is to explore the role domestic and professional embroidery played in the development and expression of English visual culture. Entry is free.

An important part of the education of young aristocratic women for centuries, who were were judged on their proficiency as a sign of their erudition and taste, embroidery has evolved from its refinement to attract people around the world to either view historic textiles in museums and galleries, or to take up the challenge of producing their own.


England, Evening Cape (c.1924) silk (crepe, velvet, thread) cotton and cotton-wool (interlining) glass (beads, diamante) courtesy National Gallery of Victoria, The Schofield Collection, Purchased with the assistance of the Government of Victoria in 1974

The show will cover some four centuries of English design, exploring the role domestic and professional embroidery played in the development and expression of an English visual culture.

This happened during a time when proficiency had a very high standard and workers were judged on the perfection of their stitches and the creation of beautiful and intricate patterns.

English embroidery in particular became a tool for recording history, for learning and teaching, for secular and sacred adornment as well as a reflection of considered style, erudition and taste.

Capes, christening dresses, coverlets, purses, gloves, dresses, waistcoats and embroidered boxes will showcase a range of stitches used from Irish stitch, to chain stitch and tent stitch.

An eighteenth century silk apron with botanical motifs and a 1920’s silk art deco evening cape with beading and chain-stitched roses will be highlights.

From the opulence of the late nineteenth century Belle Epoque, or beautiful era, the vibrance of Art Deco style across all the arts emerged, with its concentration on stylized motifs and dramatic statements of fashion as art.

There were simple dresses for morning wear, ornate ones for going out or receiving visitors and every occasion you could think of

There were sumptuous ornate outfits for evening wear, of which the cape was one. It was a great favourite when worn to the theatre and opera and have come in and out of fashion since.


Norman HARTNELL, England 1902–79, An embroidery sample approved by Her Majesty the Queen for Her Coronation dress 1953, silk, wool, metallic thread, artificial pearls and gemstones, beads and sequins 20.5 x 18.0 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Purchased, 1986

At the time Madeleine Vionnet and Paul Poiret were both young vibrant French designers, who were spearheading an attack on passe styles, re-imaging fashion for a new age post World War I.

Everyone was focusing on le style Moderne in an age when wealth and status demanded that their costume should be unique. Hand embroidery became the province of those who could afford to pay for such a luxury.

Another highlight will be the design sample for the Coronation Gown of 1953 of her majesty the Queen, which features the eight floral emblems of the Commonwealth sewn with beads, wool, silk, crystal, precious metals and mother-of-pearl

It features exquisite threads, craftsmanship and beadwork by Royal British Dressmaker Norman Hartnell revealing the ‘flair and aesthetic mastery of embroiderers’ working in Britain during the mid-twentieth century.

It contains the rose and the thistle a powerful symbol, associated with the patriotism of the Scots, which often appears with the ‘Rose of England’ after both countries joined in 1603. Australia’s Wattle is also featured.

Pictorial motifs were popular from around the 1750’s and expressions of piety throughout the nineteenth century and a pomegranate spilling its seeds a royal emblem and symbol of eternal life.

Apron 2

ENGLAND Apron (1730s) silk, silk thread, silver-plated brass thread, cardboard filling 43.2 (centre front) 24.0 cm (waist flat) Purchased, 1970 courtesy National Gallery of Victoria

As the known borders of their world expanded, the English were able to draw on many different other cultural sources for inspiration to help them embellish garments for personal, state, ceremonial and religious use with embroidery.

William Morris bed curtain

England, Bed curtain (early 18th century) linen, wool (thread), silk (thread) courtesy National Gallery of Victoria, Gift of Miss Mary Bostock, 1971

The NGV collection also contains a wall hanging and a bed curtain by Morris & Co, which under the guidance of its founder social activist, artist, designer and arts and crafts mover and shaker William Morris (1834-1896) became renowned for reviving English traditions in needlework.

Early Oak Bed in Kelmscott Manor designed and worked by May Morris, daughter of William Morris, Morris & Co Embroiderers. The Bedcover was embroidered by Jane Morris, William Morris's wife

Early Oak Bed in Kelmscott Manor designed and worked by May Morris, daughter of William Morris, Morris & Co Embroiderers. The Bedcover was embroidered by Jane Morris, William Morris’s wife

Craft workshops and guilds created during the medieval age had raised the status of embroideries from mere household articles to the decorative arts and Morris wanted this tradition revived and expanded.

Morris believed the English people, many of whom were suffering, could find their way out of industrial ugliness by going back to the joys of creation men had experienced in the early Middle Ages by embracing their historic craft forms. He wanted his vision of beauty to become an everyday aspect of life.

England’s newfound wealth entirely due to the successes of the nineteenth century industrial revolution, meant that it was growing a new culture in both sophistication and style. Many followed Morris and his colleagues lead, looking to the past to help re-imagine the future.

The revival of the art of embroidery by Morris brought this ancient English skill well back into favour and created new jobs.

His wife and daughter embroidered many textiles for use in their home and Morris’ bed at Kelmscott Manor was designed by him and embroidered by his daughter May with Lucy Yeats.

The Syon cope, English, late 13th–early 14th century; in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Syon cope, English, late 13th–early 14th century courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London. A cape-like vestment worn at Christian church ceremonies, one of the surviving examples of opus anglicanum (English work) The embroidery worked in silver-gilt and silver thread in underside couching, split, cross and plait stitches and laid and couched work.

Some textile historians would say England’s best period of embroidery was prior to 1600, especially during the medieval period (1st – 15th century).


Chasuble, ca. 1330 – 1350 English, silk and silver-gilt thread and coloured silks in underside couching, split titch, laid and couched work, and raised work, with pearls on velvet Fletcher Fund courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This was when embroidery was considered a high art form, ranking in dignity with sculpture and painting.

It was also one of the most important subjects for instruction in convents and monasteries all over the United Kingdom, not only a business or profession, but also a passionate pursuit.

Little evidence of early embroidery has survived changes in fashion or use and many texts remain that describe their magnificence.

Illuminated manuscripts in particular are a great source of the style of imagery used and indeed embroidered textiles in the tradition known as Opus Anglicanum (English work).

One account by Matthew Paris in 1246 records the Pope commenting after viewing ecclesiastical garments worn by English Bishops, whose Copes and Mitres were embroidered in gold after a very desirable fashion.

He asked where these wonderful works were made and was told; in England.

“Then” said the Pope, ‘England is surely a garden of delights for us. It is a truly a never failing spring; and there where many things abound, many much be extorted’*.

He duly sent for embroidered Orphreys and in the Vatican inventory of 1295 Opus Anglicanum is mentioned 113 times.

Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and the after effect of the English Reformation saw a cessation of ecclesiastical embroidery in England, affecting its teaching.

Its survival depended on the nobility.

1592-99 Queen Elizabeth I 1533-1603  The Hardwick Portrait by Nicholas Hilliard and his workshop. (2)

An English act of Parliament of 1364 had forbade anyone below a certain income to wear bejewelled costume and yet others, below another large sum, to wear any embroidery!

Queen Elizabeth 1 (1533-1603) wore both together.

During the reign of England’s great Queen of its ‘golden age’ she championed the art of embroidery personally, as well as its use on banners, tunics and horse trappings required for tournaments and court ceremonies.

The language of flowers was gainfully employed, especially the favourite flower of Queen Elizabeth I a small purple and yellow wild pansy.

It symbolised innocence and humility, as did the humble daisy growing abundantly in a field, while the more sophisticated red rose was at first associated with the Virgin Mary, today becoming a token of romantic love.

A stitch in time became a subject of intense interest in all the households where wealth and prosperity was a byword in her age.

She understood the importance of pomp, grandeur and dazzling splendour as propoganda – and with the aid of over 2000 costumes in her wardrobe, many of them embroidered, she successfully marketed herself and her country to the world.

The National Trust in England conserves the so-called Hardwick portrait by renowned miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard (c.1547-1619), who also painted two famous half-length panel portraits of his Queen of which this is one. It is in the Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, which is an accredited museum in its own right.

It has an extraordinary display of embroidery, which offered an extravagant view of the natural world. ‘roses, irises and pansies, are interspersed with a lively depiction of insects, animals and fish.’

Elizabeth I (the Hardwick House portrait) 1592 or c. 1599-07

There are many sources for the motifs used in books of the time and Elizabeth Talbot (Bess of Hardwick) is believed to have masterminded the design for the embroidery on HM dress.

Bess of Hardwick (1527-1608), the Countess of Shrewsbury acted as Mary Queen of Scot’s jailer for Queen Elizabeth 1, and she joined her royal prisoner each day to undertake embroidery on a grand scale while chatting..

In the hands of such extraordinary ‘women of substance’ the craft survived and was again revived for the church by Archbishop William Laud (1573-1645) who restored the art of embroidery in England as representative of the ‘beauty of holiness’.

Today Mary Queen of Scot’s collection of embroideries at Hardwick Hall in Yorkshire is one of the finest in the country

Conserving Stumpwork & Samplers

Samplers and stumpwork in the conservation laboratory for the National Gallery of Victoria.

From 1600 – 1800 unique Stump work and Crewel embroidery were favoured with Samplers becoming perhaps the most popular and at the NGV they will have examples on display.

A technical highlight will be the distinctive raised embroidery panel featuring King Charles I and his wife Henrietta Maria from the seventeenth century, which will be displayed for the first time in generations.

Stumpwork popular during the 17th century was three dimensional in quality and the works that still survive represent the techniques applied to render this extraordinary sculptural relief work, which is both charming and beautiful.

It was used to decorate small jewellery cabinets and caskets, and while captivating it was not really practical, so was limited in popularity at the time.

Today however there many enthusiasts endeavouring to re-imagine the craft.

Crewelwork was the name applied to wool worked on linen.

Favoured for bed hangings, its most popular stitches where stem, chain, satin, long and short, buttonhole and French knots.

Exempler’s from the French ‘essamplaire’ meaning to imitate or copy or the Latin exemplarium’ meaning an example to study or copy, survive after 1598.

Playwright Will Shakespeare makes mention of them at a time when they had been entrenched in English arts and crafts tradition as embroidery had for centuries.

A group of samplers on display will reflect how women perfected their stitches or created patterns for later reference. They will be displayed in mirrored cases to reveal their reverse stitching techniques and original dye colours.

Sampler BEST

England, Sampler (late 19th century) detail, linen, wool (thread), silk (thread, ribbon), metal (thread, beads), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Purchased, 1978


England, Purse (early 17th century) linen, silk (thread, lining) gilt-metal (thread) seed pearls, courtesy National Gallery of Victoria, Felton Bequest, 1970

Samplers as we know them today remained hugely popular up to the age of industrialism, declining for nearly a century although now many enthusiasts have ensured that they are enjoying a revival.

Originally samplers were meant to be an ‘aide memoire’ for stitches, but these too had their own evolutionary process.

They became a way of disseminating ideas and advancing techniques as well as admired in their own right.

NGV conservators have spent hundreds of hours restoring a 1920s art deco evening cape made of weighted silk, beading and chain-stitched roses.

Conservators have strengthened the material for display using miniscule couching stitches to the front of the silk garment.

To coincide with the exhibition an informative publication has been produced, including technical overview of some of the finest pieces in the exhibition.

The ultimate form of flattery is to have someone either copy or be inspired by your work.

There is no doubt Exquisite Threads will inspire many to take up the art of embroidery.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015

Exquisite ThreadsExquisite Threads: English Embroidery
NGV International
2 April 2015 to 12 July 2015
Open 10am-5pm, closed Tuesdays
Free entry


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