Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Story of Jacobean Embroidery

      Jacobean embroidery refers to embroidery styles that flourished in the reign of King James I of England in first quarter of the 17th century. The term is usually used today to describe a form of crewel embroidery used for furnishing characterized by fanciful plant and animal shapes worked in a variety of stitches with two-ply wool yarn on linen. Popular motifs in Jacobean embroidery, especially curtains for bed hangings, are the Tree of Life and stylized forests, usually rendered as exotic plants arising from a landscape or terra firma with birds, stags, squirrels, and other familiar animals.
      Early Jacobean embroidery often featured scrolling floral patterns worked in colored silks on linen, a fashion that arose in the earlier Elizabethan era. Embroidered jackets were fashionable for both men and women in the period 1600-1620, and several of these jackets have survived.
      Jacobean embroidery was carried by British colonists to Colonial America, where it flourished. The Deerfield embroidery movement of the 1890s revived interest in colonial and Jacobean styles of embroidery.
Traditionally called Dorothy Cary,
 later Viscountess Rochford, c. 1614-1618.
She is dressed up in Jacobean splendor!
      Fashions in embroidery, unlike fashions in dress, do not change quickly : it is not a matter of months but of years. When we remember that this crewel work is nearly three hundred years old we can understand that ten years, or twenty for that matter, is neither here nor there. Three hundred years ago life was not the speedy business it is now. Certainly, people were beginning to travel more — the stage coach was an innovation about this time — read more, and take a growing interest in things further afield, but it still took a long long time for a new idea to permeate the whole country.
      It is impossible to simplify matters by putting different styles of embroidery in separate little compartments. One style is always merging into its next door neighbor or popping up when least expected.
      The vogue for embroidery worked in worsted, which is that in which we are particularly interested, lasted about fifty years, or roughly speaking from 1650-1710. Another way of putting it would be to say approximately from the Restoration to the death of Queen Anne.
      Quite a lot of work in crewel wools must have been done long before this on cushions and hangings, and was certainly afterwards, but the pieces that have survived, all belong to this period.
It is rather odd, that although Stuart and Jacobean mean the same thing, in embroidery the title of Jacobean is used for the crewel work, whilst Stuart is applied to all the other types of contemporary needlework, such as the curious padded stump work and the petit point panels.
      Before discussing the actual embroideries, picture for a moment what was happening in England during these days. For twenty odd years the people led a very sober existence under the strict supervision of Cromwell. Then came the second Charles, fond of comfort and gaiety, full of continental ideas and with hosts of foreign friends. It was definitely a time of extravagance. The world of fashion welcomed any novelty in dress, food or anything else, and novelties there were in plenty. Nell Gwynne's star was in the ascendant and Samuel Pepys was writing his diary.
      All this time an important thing was happening. Trade had been slowly expanding since the days of Elizabeth, and by now our ships were well known as far away as India and the Far East. The first British ship reached China whilst Charles the First was still king. Travellers and merchants returned from abroad with tales of strange people and strange places. The trading companies, now settled in the East, sent home with their cargoes many beautiful examples of Indian crafts- manship.
Public taste was intrigued, particularly with the exquisitely painted calicoes or Palampores. These were treasured and used as curtains or wall decorations.
     The Palampores were all very much alike. A Tree of Life usually sprang from decorative mounds of earth. Its branches, which spread about in all directions, were laden with exotic flowers and birds.
This description could quite easily be applied to a typical Jacobean hanging. Indeed, these cottons had an immediate effect on embroidery. Everybody wanted this new Eastern flavour. If one could not have a real Palampore, one could at least have the new bed hangings worked in the same style, with similar flowers and birds altered only to suit the limitations of crewel work, or when the individuality of the designer asserted itself.
      The delicate drawing on the calicoes was soon lost in the crewel patterns, but this does not make them any the less attractive.
A traditional Jacobean floral design.
      It is very obvious that, however Indian or Persian each detail may pretend to be, the whole effect is undoubtedly more English than Oriental. Perhaps it is unfair to stress the Eastern influence so often. After all, trees and flowers have always been well to the fore in English embroidery.
      The first crewel work hangings were in monochrome, generally in shades of blue or green, but occasionally in red. They showed serpent-like trunks, side by side, or sprawling over the whole design. From these grew acanthus-like leaves, and clumsy flower shapes, which were outlined with chain stitch and patterned inside with little scale patterns and check fillings, or with fine scroll effects. The trunks themselves were sometimes in crewel stitch, but more often in chain.
      Next, the designs became more solid. The mounds of earth, the tree trunks, leaves and flowers were entirely filled in with long and short stitch. Because of the much slower method the motifs became smaller. 
      Strangely enough, in spite of its name, crewel stitch itself is used very little, much less indeed than long and short stitch. 
      Sometimes the design is a single tree. Rabbits, deer and an occasional leopard appear among the mounds, with pagoda-like houses and vases of flowers. Surely a Chinese touch, this? 
      The coloring is now much brighter, although greens and blues still predominate. Reds are brickish or rose rather than on the pink and mauve side, and blues are always more indigo than royal. 
      Olive green is used, not jade, and the ultimate result is one of richness rather than prettiness. Some of the colours must have faded, but the blues, greens and browns seem to have remained almost unaltered. 
      Towards the end of the seventeenth century the patterns for crewel work began to change. Isolated sprays appear or borders with sprays spotted about between. The all-over patterns become quite thin and dainty. The flowers become more English and the mounds seem to disappear. We are told that Queen Anne, though not a needlewoman, was a very keen gardener. Perhaps this accounts for the flowers becoming more and more lifelike in treatment as if the embroideress had taken them direct from nature. 
      But it was the Queen who preceded Anne, Mary, the wife of William III, who is a shining example of industry to all embroideresses. She was never seen idle and spent days at her embroidery frame. It was due to her influence that such quantities of crewel work were attempted. Nothing was too ambitious. Crewel work was even used for upholstery. 
      It was the fashionable thing to be an accomplished needlewoman, and sometimes whole sets of chair coverings would be undertaken by the lady of the house and her daughters. At this time, too, there were also the professional embroiderers — men belonging to the Broderers' Guild. They would travel across the countryside staying at various houses to work the new bed curtains, and it is probable that many of the crewel work panels would be their work, whilst the ladies of the household spent their time on samplers, petit point pictures and articles of clothing. 
      Long after Anne died crewel work remained in favor, or, to be more accurate, the same type of pattern did, but silk gradually took the place of wool. New styles in furniture, lighter and daintier than the Jacobean, demanded rather different coverings, and flowered silks and velvets were considered the correct thing. 
      The Chinese type of ornament grew in popularity, even Chippendale developed one of his styles under its influence. 
      But the subject appears endless and we must conclude, but not without first expressing a hope, that even if you are not actually interested in history, you will perhaps see something more than just a pleasant way of passing the time in your next piece of Jacobean crewel work.

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