Though it was certainly not his intention, by abdicating the throne of France in April of 1814, Naploeon Bonaparte set in train a series of events which would make it possible for thousands of women in southwestern Scotland to earn extra money to support their families for several decades. Many Scots had supported Bonaparte in principal, seeing him as the enemy of their enemy, the English. Perhaps it was simply poetic justice that his actions led to a source of desparately needed funds for an entire Scottish shire.
How the stones "flowered" in Ayrshire, two hundred years ago . . .
Since the failure of the Peace of Amiens in 1803, few British citizens were willing to take the chance of venturing into the French Empire ruled by Napoleon Bonaparte. For more than a decade, the many luxury products of France were unavailable to those who lived in the British Isles. Unless, of course, they were smuggled in by the many "free traders" who plied the Channel. But free traders had an eye for those items which were in the highest demand and the easiest to transport, such as French wines and brandies along with bolts of silks and satins. Delicate embroideries did not make the cut. Certainly not pure, pristine white work on the finest cotton lawn.
With the end of the war and Napoleon in exile on Elba, France was once more open to tourists from the British Isles. One of those tourists was Lady Marie Montgomerie, an aristocratic Scottish lady from Ayrshire. Among the items she had acquired during her travels in France was an exquisitely embroidered christening gown. As had been the practice in Ayrshire for generations, Lady Marie loaned this beautiful baby gown to her friend, Mrs. Jamieson, for the christening of her child. Mrs. Jamieson was a skilled needlewoman who recognized the fine quality of the embroidery work on the French christening gown. Before she returned the gown to her friend, Lady Marie, Mrs. Jamieson studied the delicate stitches closely, until she was able to reproduce all of them.
White work, that is, embroidery worked on white cloth in white thread, was a form of needlework which was more than a century old by the Regency. It began as simple finishing stitches on linen undergarments, but gradually emerged as a unique form of embellishment in its own right. After the introduction of cotton muslins from India, white work truly came into its own. English textile manufacturers were producing very fine cotton lawns and muslins, which had come into high demand with the introduction of Neo-classical clothing styles at the end of the eighteenth century. By the time Lady Marie Montgomerie made her trip to France after Napoleon’s abdication, French needlewomen had taken white work to a high art, especially on fine cotton cloth. Fortunately for the women of Ayrshire, the embroidered baby gown which Lady Marie brought back from France served as a conduit of that sophisticated embroidered art to their quiet corner of the world.
Once Mrs. Jamieson had mastered the delicate floral embroidery motifs which embellished the pure white cotton gown which her friend had brought back from France, she did not keep it to herself. The end of the war with Bonaparte had brought poverty and hardship to rural Scotland, including Ayrshire. Many Scots, both those living in villages and on farms, had supplemented their meagre income with the spinning of wool yarns or the weaving of wool cloth. But sales of woollen goods had fallen off sharply with the advent of the more popular cottons, so most spinning wheels and hand looms sat idle in the cottages of Ayrshire. Mrs. Jamieson set up classes to teach the French embroidery techniques she had mastered to any of the women who were interested.
However, if all Mrs. Jamieson had been able to do was to teach this elegant style of embroidery to the women of Ayrshire, it would have done them little monetary good. But Mrs. Jamieson was in a unique position to help the women of her village, and her county, turn their needlework skills into a source of income. Her husband was a successful cotton agent in the county. With his help, she was able to develop a supply network by which fine cotton cloth was made available to the women of Ayrshire and their finished embroidery work would be purchased by dealers in Glasgow, Edinburgh, London and beyond. The initial success of this elegant white work embroidery inspired more and more women to learn the technique, and before the Regency came to a close, "Ayrshire needlework" was in high demand among the fashionable ladies of Britain. Fortunately for the women of Ayrshire, it would remain in demand for several decades.
Early on, each woman transferred her own patterns onto the cloth and embroidered the whole piece herself. But as Ayrshire needlework became more popular, the dealers sought ways to speed the work and ensure high quality in all the finished pieces. Some of the women who did the white work made stamps so that they could create consistent designs for their stitchery. The cotton dealers began having the cotton blanks stamped with popular designs before they were delivered to the needlewomen who would embroider them. As the women worked, it became clear that some were better with certain stitches than others. Therefore, the stamped blanks were first given to the women who would work the basic stitches, then passed along to other women who would work more and more difficult and complex stitches, according to their special needle skills. Thus, each completed piece was worked as expertly as possible. These high-quality Ayrshire needlework pieces commanded top dollar, bringing much needed funds to supplement many family incomes when times were hard.
Christening gowns and caps, garment insertions and edgings, handkerchiefs, fichus and collars comprised the bulk of Ayrshire embroidery work during the Regency. However, it was also used to embellish ecclesiastical garments. Most of the motifs which were incorporated into the designs were flowers or flowering plants with leafy branches. It was for that reason that in Ayrshire this delicate floral embroidery work came to be known as "spriggin" or "floo’erin" (flowering). The women who did this work came to be known as "flowerers." Most Ayrshire embroidery was worked over fine cotton muslin or even finer cotton lawn, with fine cotton threads. The finest lawns were so thin that they were nearly transparent. Designs included eyelets, as well as drawn or pulled thread patterns, with occasional appliqued motifs. Completed Ayrshire embroidery worked on very thin lawn looked more like lace than embroidery and was a very fashionable embellishment on Regency ladies’ garments.
Christening gowns and caps were usually made from fine muslin with embroidered insertions in the bodice and the skirt, as well as many yards of ruffled edgings. Caps were made with several rows of tucking which could be let out when needed to accommodate different head sizes. These caps also had several rows of narrow casings around the crown through which lengths of firm string were threaded. These strings were used to secure the cap to the baby’s head, making it unnecessary to tie the cap under the child’s chin. Though the strings in the cap may have been somewhat uncomfortable to wear, there was no chance of choking from a tie under the chin. These lovely christening garments were very popular with the upper classes, but there were also quite a number of Ayrshire babies who wore one at their christenings as well. Scholars have discovered that each Ayrshire village had one or two christening gowns and caps which had been made by the women in the village. As had been the practice for generations, the community christening garments were loaned to the family whose baby was to be baptized for wear during the service. Though most of those children might never again wear a such a costly and elegant garment, they looked their best on the day they were christened.
Ayrshire embroidery work was very labor-intensive and each piece took literally hundreds of hours to complete. It was particularly hard on needleworkers’ eyes, since they would typically stitch from ten to fifteen hours a day, not all of that time during daylight hours. A few women could afford candles, while others worked near a smoky peat fire or close to a rush light. Whenever possible, weather permitting, the flowerers worked outdoors to take advantage of the best light. Most cottages where needleworkers lived had a large stone block in the door yard. The tops of these stones were often covered with a layer of turf or straw to make them more comfortable to sit on for long hours. These stone "benches" came to be known as "Floo’rin Stanes" (flowering stones). In some villages, flowering stones were arranged in a circle or semi-circle in the door yard of one of the cottages so that the flowerers could work together in the good light, most often in the summer months.
Eye-strain was a typical complaint among the needlewomen of Ayrshire. One remedy which was used by may flowerers was to bathe their eyes with whisky, on the assumption it would sharpen their sight and relieve the pain. A few years ago, an Ayrshire needlework scholar who also did a lot of white work herself, bathed her eyes with whisky in order to determine what effect it might have had. She noted that though she would not recommend it to anyone else, she did not find it as painful as she expected. Once the initial stinging had passed, she actually found the treatment rather soothing, but she did not believe that it did anything to sharpen or otherwise improve her eye-sight. Despite the many hardships under which they labored, the Ayrshire flowerers produced some of the most technically difficult and exquisite embroideries ever seen, even to this day. Most of them earned anywhere from four pence to two shillings a day. Those new to the work, who could only execute the simple basic stitches, earned the lesser amounts, while those very skilled needlewomen who could work the most complex stitches earned the highest amounts.
A Google image search on ayrshire whitework embroidery will return a wide range of results. These images are of Ayrshire needlework over several decades, and represent only the tip of the iceberg of the vast quantities of these beautiful embroideries which were produced in Ayrshire. This kind of white work embroidery continued to be made in Ayrshire until the early 1860s. At that time, the American Civil War drastically reduced the volume of cotton the South was able to produce and send to Britain. At about that same time, similar needlework products were being made much more cheaply in the Phillipines and imported into Britain. By 1870, there were very few flowerers who were still plying their needles in Ayrshire. But beginning in the Regency, for over half a century, many needlewomen in Ayrshire were able to support themselves and/or supplement their family income by creating exquistite white floral embroidery.
Ayrshire needlework has survived into the twenty-first century. There are still a few dedicated needlewomen who have mastered the craft and are teaching it to those who want to learn. But sadly, it is now impossible to recreate the finest of the Ayrshire white embroidery work. The very fine, nearly transparent lawn which was woven during the Regency is no longer made. Even most modern muslins are heavier than the finely woven cotton muslins on which the Ayrshire flowerers worked. Some experienced needlewomen have found small caches of old drawings and plans on architect’s linen. Architect’s, or pattern linen, was very finely woven linen which was stiffened with starch and used by architect’s and other draftsmen to render their final finished drawings. It was manufactured for over a century, until the 1960s, when it was replaced by acetate sheets. These old drawings can still be found from time to time, and needlewomen who can get hold of them wash them and bleach out the drawings. The cleaned and bleached linen is so fine that it approximates Regency muslins and is an ideal surface on which to work close reproductions of Ayrshire white embroidery. Another challenge to any needlewoman seeking to create an accurate reproduction of an Ayrshire white work embroidered peice is the thread. The fine, soft cotton thread that the original flowerers used is also no longer made. Most thread today is given a very firm twist and is mercerized, which gives it a noticeable sheen. However, determined needlewomen cut lengths of fine white cotton sewing thread, untwist them and separate the plys to create an approximation of the very fine, soft threads which the original flowerers used.
Dear Regency Authors, might a special piece of Aryshire white needlework have a place in one of your upcoming novels? Though the bulk of Ayrshire needlework during the Regency was made by the women living in that small shire, some ladies enjoyed white work and did their own embroidery. A talented Regency needlewoman might have worked a delicate floral pattern on a special handkerchief or a beautiful flounce on her petticoat. White work was exqusite when well done. It was also delicate and subtle enough that a clever needlewoman could stitch a hidden message into a piece, should she choose to do so. Perhaps the heroine has had a crush on the hero since she was very young, and embroidered a white work handkerchief in which she included something about her sentiments at the time. Might that youthful embroidery make a bit of mischief for her as a grown woman? Or, maybe the heroine is a lady in a Scottish village in Ayrshire and learns of the work of Mrs. Jamieson elsewhere in the shire. How will she arrange to provide training and employment for the women in the village near her family home? Are there other ways in which Ayrshire needlework might embellish a future Regency?