Last week, I wrote about the beautiful and elegant work-boxes which were available at a few exclusive boutiques along the shopping arcade of the Palais Royal in Paris during the Regency. This week, the variety of needlework tools which could have been found within those work-boxes will be the focus of attention. They were beautiful, elegant, delicate and considered the very best needlework tools a needlewoman could own. And some of them had lovely secrets which quite delighted their owners.
Now, shall we open the lid of a Palais Royal needlework box?
The primary reason the Palais Royal tools were so popular was that they were so finely made, of the best quality materials. Secondly, they were quite beautifully designed, making them a true pleasure to look at as well as to use. But as I mentioned last week, these fine tools were meant to be used only for fine stitchery, they were not strong enough to have been used with heavy threads or fabrics. Therefore, they tended to be acquired and used by wealthy needlewomen who enjoyed fine needlework such as embroidery or tambour-work, which required the use of delicate fabrics and fine threads, most often silk threads. Those ladies who spent a great deal of time over their needlework often acquired the largest work-boxes, which were furnished with the greatest number of stitchery implements.
One of the simplest, but very attractive, needlework implements to be found in a Palais Royal work-box was the thread winder. A very nice example, a carved mother-of-pearl thread winder, from about 1820, can be seen here. Thread winders first began to appear in needlework boxes in the 1720s, as a means by which to keep threads untwisted and clean until they were ready to be used. Threads were sold in skeins or hanks, rather than on spools, well into the nineteenth century. Therefore, thread winders were an indispensible article in work-boxes right through the Regency. They were made in various sizes, such as square, rectangular, round or star-shaped, from various materials, including wood, ivory, horn, straw-work, even glass, as well as tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl. Those made of more precious materials tended to be smaller in size, as they were intended for use with fine silk and cotton threads. Thus, these smaller, more decorative winders were often called silk-winders, for the threads with which they were intended to be used. Palais Royal thread winders, or silk winders, were often made in the distinctive multi-lobed snowflake or flower shape seen in the photo, but they were also made in other forms. The majority of silk winders found in Palais Royal boxes were made of mother-of-pearl, carved and pierced with delicate designs. There were some silk winders made of tortoiseshell, but they were less common and usually less highly carved. Silk winders typically came in pairs, a small work-box having just two to six winders, while as many as dozen, or more, winders might be found in the larger boxes. By the Regency, some of the larger boxes also include a pair of empty mother-of-pearl spools on which could be wound larger amounts of thread.
While engaged in needlework, threads, of course, must be cut from time to time. And there is no more beautiful implement with which to cut threads than the scissors to be found in a Palais Royal work-box. A very fine pair of Palais Royal scissors can be seen here. They do not have the tiny enamel pansy hallmark which may be seen on many Palais Royal tools, but if you look closely at the gold collars where the handles join the blades, you can see that a five-petaled pansy on a single-leaf stem has been cast into them. Another example of a pair of Palais Royal scissors from 1810, with ornately carved handles in mother-of-pearl, in the shape of Rococo dolphins, can be found here. The blades of these scissors are of steel, as were all the blades of Palais Royal scissors, regardless of how ornate the handles might be. Such ornate and filigreed handles did have a disadvantage, of course. They could not take the pressure which had to be exerted when cutting anything but the finest silk threads, and could easily break. It may be for that reason that many Palais Royal work-boxes which survive today include one or more additional pair of scissors or thread snips. There may also be another reason why a lady would keep a second pair of scissors in her work-box, particularly if they were English-made scissors. Since the mid-eighteenth century, English scissors had been considered much superior to those made anywhere on the Continent. Therefore, a serious needlewoman might have enjoyed looking at her lovely pair of Palais Royal scissors, with their ornately carved mother-of-pearl handles, but when it came time to cut her threads, she used the more business-like, if somewhat less attractive, English-made scissors to do the job.
Once a length of thread was cut, a needle would be required to work it through the fabric. Needles were very expensive during the Regency and were typically sold wrapped in a bit of paper. Since needles were so costly and so small, the best way to keep them together, clean and ready for use, was in a needle case. And the Palais Royal needle cases are some of the loveliest ever made, many of them of mother-of-pearl. And these needle cases most often carried the famous gold and enamel pansy hallmark of Palais Royal stitchery tools. A simple, lovely example of a Palais Royal mother-of-pearl needle case with the pansy hallmark can be seen here. Though this case is simple in form, its mother-of-pearl surface and the gold banding on the top of the case are in keeping with the luxurious needlework implements from the Palais Royal. A similar case, with a slightly larger top can be seen here. It also has the enamel pansy hallmark on the front. An even more decorative needle case can be seen here. Also of mother-of-pearl and carrying the enamel pansy hallmark, this needle case is made in the shape of a quiver filled with arrows. The gold banding on the top of this case is at a slight angle, adding to the sporty style of the case. A similar needle case can be seen here. The needle cases with a more simple form were usually found in the more moderately priced Palais Royal work-boxes, while the more ornate needle cases were generally found in the most expensive work-boxes.
Other notions which might be found in a Palais Royal work-box include ribbon winders, such as this one, made, naturally, of mother-of-pearl. Ribbons were used in many ways in ladies’ garments and under-garments. Bodkins were also necessary, in order to thread the ribbons through the bodices and waistbands and other points on the clothing where they were needed. Bodkins often came in sets of three, and could be of ivory, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl or silver, like this set, which, though Victorian, is very similar to the larger types of bodkins which would have been used during the Regency. Stilettoes or awls might also be found in a work-box, and were used for making eyelets and other small holes needed for fastenings and ornamentation. The mother-of-pearl stiletto in this work-box carries the well-known gold and enamel pansy hallmark. A narrow mother-of-pearl bodkin is also included in this case. Another example of a Palais Royal stiletto with a mother-of-pearl handle can be seen in this work-box. A small crystal phial can also be seen in this same work-box. Such a phial could be used for scent, hartshorn or a vinaigrette, depending on the needs of the lady who owned the case.
One implement of stitchery which would have been included in nearly every work-box was a thimble. And the thimbles of Palais Royal were among the most elegant ever created. Most of them were made of mother-of-pearl, and very often carried the tiny gold and enamel pansy medallion hallmark. A classic example of a Palais Royal thimble can be seen here. Yet, tiny as they were, it was thimbles which most often concealed a secret in the needlework box, particularly those made for sale at the Palais Royal. One of the most charming of these, bearing a small copper shield hallmark, can be seen here. The thimble, when not in use, functions as a diminutive dome which is screwed down over a base in which is concealed a tiny crystal bottle with a gold cap. This tiny bottle can be used for perfume or spirits, as its owner wished. It is believed that it was the French who first introduced these secret thimbles, and various things might be found under the dome of the thimble when it was unscrewed from its base. In addition to tiny bottles, these thimbles might conceal a small pincushion, or a small seal for use with sealing wax. The few seals of which I am aware have a single letter, probably the owner’s initial, which appear to have been intended for the lady to employ in sealing her personal correspondence. Some of these secret thimbles were empty, allowing the lady who owned it to place whatever she liked inside.
Since many needlewomen spent so much time with their work-boxes, many of them acquired boxes which also included other necessities which a lady might require through her day. For example, in this musical work-box can be seen a small, folding pen-knife near the back of the tray. In each front corner can be seen a matching set of an ink well and a pounce pot (sander). In this same work-box can be seen a pair of silk-winders, a pair of small spools, a small bodkin and a tambour hook handle, as well as a pair of scissors, needle case and thimble, all marked with the enameled pansy medallion hallmark. This large box from the 1830s contains the usual sewing implements, but also a small folding pen-knife, a crochet hook, a button hook and even a cork-screw.
Both the Palais Royal work-boxes and the many needlework tools which they contained were small works of art, crafted with skill and care by a select group of talented artisans working in the heart of Paris. Needlewomen all over the Continent, and in Britain, coveted these beautiful and finely made objects and would have been quite delighted with a gift of a needlework box or even a few needlework tools. Though Paris was closed to the English until Napoleon was exiled to Elba, and later to St. Helena, an enterprising gentleman with the right contacts would have been able to acquire such a gift for his special lady. And what of the needlewoman who owned these lovely tools? Would she make it a point to use them when visitors were present, to flaunt her fine possessions? Might she fold a clandestine note from her lover so small that she could slip it into her needlecase to hide it from prying eyes? Perhaps a young man without a lot of money could only afford to purchase one item for his secret love from a shop in the Palais Royal. Might he choose a secret thimble with the enamel pansy hallmark to let her know he is always thinking of her, and perhaps a seal with her initial on it concealed inside? Would she keep her precious thimble hidden, and use the concealed seal only to seal secret missives to her love? Or, might a dastardly villianess bent on murder carry a secret thimble inside of which is concealed a tiny bottle which she has filled with a lethal poison? Dear Regency Authors, how might you embroider a story with some needlework tools from the Palais Royal?