Embroidery Patterns in the Regency

Regency ladies planning a new embroidery project could not just pop down to the local stitchery shop to select a printed pattern which suited their purposes, like many needlewomen are able to do today. Certainly, there was no such thing as an iron-on embroidery pattern available anywhere during our favorite period. But that does not mean that those ladies who lacked the skill to draw were left without options for their embroidery projects in the days of the Prince Regent.

Patterns for embroidery during the Regency . . .

It is impossible to know when the first piece of cloth was adorned with the addition of stitches in colored threads, or even the types of textiles which were used for the purpose. But there is no doubt that humans, across nearly all cultures, have been using embroidery in one form or another for millennia. In England, by the Middle Ages, most embroidery, at least those pieces which have survived into the present day, were worked by professional embroiderers, primarily on items intended for use in the churches of the era. Of course, members of the royal family and the wealthy aristocracy were able to afford embroidery work on a few of their furnishings and garments. It was not until the Tudor period that the balance would shift in the other direction, so that most professional embroiderers were employed in the making of fine furnishings and garments for the royalty and nobility of the land.

By the sixteenth century, professional embroidery workshops were focused almost exclusively on the production of detailed and exquisitely stitched embroideries for their wealthy clients. Textiles at this time were all woven by hand and were therefore quite expensive. However, the value of these textiles soared when they were embroidered with richly colored wools and glittering metallic threads. But as the sixteenth century progressed, many upper class women had learned to embroider and were busily engaged in creating luxurious embroidered items to furnish their homes and adorn their persons. Even before the turn of the seventeenth century, most women of the landed classes learned to embroider as part of their education, typically from their mother or other female family members. But where did all these domestic embroiderers get the patterns they carefully stitched onto their cloth?

Flowers and plants had been popular embroidery motifs for centuries. Women, in particular, enjoyed the beauty of a wide range of flowers. They were also well-versed in the properties of many plants, which they employed in their still rooms to make a host of useful household mixtures and infusions, from essential oils to medical preparations. With the advent of the printing press, most affluent families possessed at least one herbal, a book which described the various physical characteristics and properties of herbs and other plants which were the source of many concoctions and compounds that were household essentials at the time. In addition to the text, the better herbals also included illustrations of the plants with each entry. Those illustrations were intended to make it easier for the reader to identify each plant or herb, but those same illustrations were also an ideal source of inspiration for needlewomen seeking new designs for their embroidery patterns.

Emblem books were also convenient sources of patterns for embroideries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. An emblem was the combination of an image and a short passage of text which exemplified some particular moral message. These allegorical images were used by many people as a focal point for private meditation. However, they were also often used as a source of imagery in festivals and pageants, to adorn special costumes or to ornament the backs of medals. Emblems were also incorporated into paintings, particularly individual or even family portraits, as a way to communicate a person’s or a family’s moral philosophies. It should come as no surprise then that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many ladies took inspiration for their embroidery designs from emblem books.

However, plants and moral allegory were not the only source of embroidery design. Animals, both real and mythological, were popular images in embroidery. Many ladies would consult the family bestiary for pictures and information about these creatures which they could incorporate into their embroidery designs. But it must be understood that not all bestiaries were simple catalogs of animals, real or imaged. Some bestiaries were a bit like emblem books, using the information about the animals they described to present a moral message. In such books, the traits of specific animals were used to represent similar traits in man, either for good or bad. There were also special bestiaries of love, in which the animal stories were used rather like fables, to relate a love story in which one animal wooed another, using the desirable attributes of the animals to exemplify those of a courting human couple.

There is some evidence that both professional and domestic embroiderers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England were getting inspiration from the few needlework pattern books published on the Continent. From the mid-sixteenth century on, books which included patterns for a wide array of needlework, including embroidery, were published in Italy, Germany and France. Pattern books from Italy were initially the most popular, but gradually pattern books from the Germanic states and later, from France, gained the interest of many needle workers. By the seventeenth century, a number of these pattern books had been re-published in Britain, with English translations of the text.

Still another source of embroidery designs were the exotic items which were imported into Britain as a result of trade with foreign parts. Furniture, porcelain, paper-hangings and, of course, textiles, which were brought back to England from India, China and other foreign ports, often became a source of embroidery design for those who owned, or had just laid eyes on, some of these fantastically strange and unfamiliar objects. The practice of drawing embroidery pattern designs from objects imported from the Near and Far East increased though the eighteenth century. Curiously, some embroidery patterns drew their inspiration from copies of these exotic imports, such as English japanned furniture or European porcelains.

Clearly, women who wished to employ their needles in the art of embroidery had a wide range of sources for their designs. But how did they get their designs of choice converted into patterns which could be stitched onto their cloth? Women with an innate talent for drawing might draw out their own patterns. However, it was not until the last decades of the eighteenth century that young women were taught to draw as part of their general education. Before that time, many women had their embroidery patterns draw to their specifications by a professional embroiderer or an artist seeking to supplement his income. For women who planned to embroider on linen, their designs were most often drawn on paper. But for women who were planning to work what we call needlepoint today, their patterns were often painted directly onto the canvas on which they would be working, since it would all be covered with the thick wool threads they would be using. From the end of the seventeenth century, a number of these professional embroiderers or artists had sheets of popular embroidery patterns available for sale. A few even issued sets of embroidery patterns in books, for those who could afford them. In most cases, these patterns were sold though linen drapers, lace makers or haberdashers shops. Most

The distinct profession of needlework pattern maker (or drawer) did not emerge until the mid- eighteenth century, when it was recorded by R. Campbell in his " . . . Compendious View of All Trades . . .," The London Tradesman, in 1740. According to Campbell, a pattern maker prepared his patterns on paper or on " . . . different sorts of linens with the Proper silks and crewels for making them." He also noted that such tradesmen required a "fruitful Fancy" and "a wild kind of imagination." It would seem there were no limits set on the embroidery patterns produced by these craftsmen in the second half of the eighteenth century. Yet it was at about this same time that pattern makers had to produce patterns that would tempt their potential customers, since as the eighteenth century progressed, fewer women chose to ply their needles. The Enlightenment and other changes in society at this time freed affluent women from home and hearth and they sought other amusements than the traditional crafts which had absorbed them in centuries past. In fact, a number of pattern makers began to produce linen cloth "patterns" on which they had painted in such complex details as human faces, or time-consuming sections such as the sky of a landscape or greensward of a rolling lawn. It was left for the less ambitious embroideress to employ her needle to fill in an elegant lady’s gown with a small area of satin stitch, or to add dimension to a scattering of wooly sheep with a plethora of French knots in order to complete her picture.

It must be noted that as exotic foreign imports increased, they also began to have a significant impact on the textiles employed in embroidery, particularly for garments. Both the Italians and the French had developed their own silk industries, based originally on Chinese silks, and by the last decades of the eighteenth century, the thinner, lustrous silk threads imported from Europe had superceded the thicker, duller wool threads which had been most commonly used in English embroidery in previous centuries. And these finer silk threads were ideal for stitching on the new lightweight cotton muslins which had become popular for garments by the end of the eighteenth century. When woven of very fine and delicate threads, this even weave fabric could be made so thin it was nearly transparent.

The availability of these lovely, delicate materials may be one reason why a number of women were tempted to ply their needles in embroidery once again, particularly as the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth. Muslins were also less expensive than the heavier and more costly silks which had been fashionable for garments in the middle decades of the eighteenth century. Therefore, more women could afford these finer, yet more economical fabrics. Plus, though silk threads were expensive, even a small skein of silk embroidery thread could cover a large area of cloth, thus enabling even women of quite modest means to have a fine muslin gown decorated with delicate silk embroidery, so long as they were willing to do the work themselves. But where were they to get their patterns?

During the Regency, affluent women could purchase embroidery patterns from professional pattern makers who offered a wide range of stock patterns, or who would produce a custom pattern on commission. Most of these pattern makers seem to have been located in London, though there is some suggestion that there were at least a few pattern makers to be found in some of the larger cities across the British Isles. Another source of embroidery patterns, from the end of the eighteenth century, were several of the more popular ladies periodicals. The Ladies Magazine, The New Ladies Magazine and The Fashionable Magazine had all begun including embroidery patterns in at least some of their issues since the late eighteenth century. One of the most prolific sources of embroidery designs during the Regency was the Repository of arts, literature, commerce, manufactures, fashions, and politics, which was published by Rudolph Ackermann, from 1809 through 1829. Ackermann published the first needlework pattern in the November 1811 issue, and they would continue to appear in most issues through the run of the periodical. Though a few of these patterns were given specific titles, most of the patterns published from 1813 on were simply titled "Needlework Patterns" or "Muslin Patterns" and their delicacy suggests they were indeed intended to be embroidered on fine cloth like the muslins of the era. It must be remembered that Ackermann’s Repository was not an inexpensive publication, which may have put it beyond the budget of a woman of modest means. However, it is quite possible that if such a woman had a more affluent friend who subscribed to the magazine, she might be able to borrow her friend’s copy when seeking a new embroidery design. Or, perhaps she would be able to peruse copies of Ackermann’s Repository at her local lending library, if she could afford a subscription there.

Once a Regency woman had chose her new needlework pattern, how was she to use it to transfer her stitches onto the cloth she would embroider? For years, a number of needlework scholars had assumed that these patterns were transferred on to the ground cloth by tracing or pouncing. But in 1973, a collection of professionally produced embroidery patterns from the later eighteenth century came into the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. This collection has provided much enlightenment on the way embroidery patterns were actually used in the latter decades of the eighteenth century. Lady Middleton’s pattern collection do have a number of tiny pin pricks in them, but there is no evidence of the use of pounce, that is, of forcing a fine powder through those tiny holes to mark the cloth beneath. Rather, the scholars who examined this collection believe that due to the thinness of the muslin ground cloth, the patterns were simply pinned or basted underneath the thin muslin. Both layers were then held in position in a tambour or embroidery frame. The design was then stitched onto the cloth, with the paper below used as a guide. It is entirely possible that Regency women did much the same when they were embroidering designs on their own muslins.

Study of Lady Middleton’s embroidery pattern collection has shown that these designs came from a London retailer of embroidery patterns. It is believed that Lady Middleton acquired these patterns when she came up from her country home in East Sussex for the London season. It is suggested that some of these pattern makers not only sold their designs, but also allowed customers to rent them for a period of time. Another interesting point which has come to light is that Lady Middleton did not hoard her embroidery patterns for her own use. It is clear they were shared freely among a circle of her family and friends, thus enabling a number of women to take advantage of these professionally produced embroidery patterns without having to bear the cost. Since each needlewoman would almost certainly use different colors and stitches when she created her own embroidery, as well as shifting or combining designs, it is likely that even when a group of women used the same embroidery patterns, their results would be noticeable different. It is more than likely that the practice of sharing professionally drawn embroidery patterns among a group of women continued right through the Regency.

Affluent Regency women who enjoyed embroidery could purchase loose sheets, or books, of professionally drawn embroidery patterns from their favorite linen draper or haberdasher. They could also commission an exclusive pattern from a professional pattern maker, if they wanted a unique design for a special piece of stitchery. Those who could afford subscriptions to ladies magazines, such as Ackermann’s Repository, had another means by which to acquire new needlework designs. But even women of more modest means were not necessarily shut out of opportunities to acquire new designs for their own embroidery. A more affluent woman might share her new embroidery patterns among a circle of close friends and family members, which made them available to women who might not otherwise be able to afford them.

Though iron-on embroidery patterns were still at least a century into the future, Regency women who enjoyed embroidery had multiple options by which to obtain the patterns they needed for their work, even if they could not draw them themselves. Dear Regency Authors, might you include a character in an upcoming Regency romance who likes to embroider? If so, how will she get her patterns? Might she spend some time in the home of a wealthier friend, copying a lovely new pattern from a recent copy of Ackermann’s Repository? Could it be that during that same time, her friend’s brother has come home, perhaps with a very handsome gentleman in tow, whom he has invited to spend some time with him in the country? Mayhap a governess who must accompany a spoiled young charge to events during the London season, thinking not to embarrass the young woman, embroiders her simple gown with some delicate embroidery of her own design. Despite its simplicity, the understated elegance of her gown attracts the attention of a gentleman of good taste, who completely ignores the spoiled young debutante. Or, perhaps the heroine, her finances at low ebb, produces a wonderful selection of fashionable embroidery patterns which she is able to sell on commission through a haberdasher popular with the Beau Monde. What might happen if her secret is revealed? How else might an embroidery pattern or two be used to embellish a Regency romance?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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3 Responses to Embroidery Patterns in the Regency

  1. Interestingly, my great aunt used to pounce all the patterns she cut out of magazines, and then draw over the pounce in soft pencil since it was inclined to rub off, especially being taken in and out of an embroidery bag. Plenty of potential plot bunnies here for my girls at the Swanley Court charity school!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Both my grandmother and my great aunt also used pounce to transfer their embroidery patterns. But they were born near the end of the nineteenth century, and I doubt the cloth available to them was as fine and transparent as the muslins which were made during the Regency. So, they would not have been able to simply lay the cloth to be embroidered over the pattern to follow it. But until I began my research for this article, I had assumed pounce had been in use for centuries to transfer embroidery patterns. Yet another reminder that we should not assume that things have always been done in the ways we know today, however low-tech they might seem.

      If any of this information makes it into one of your Swanley Court stories, do please remember to post a link to the story here when it is published.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. Pingback: Before Silver Paper Was Silver | The Regency Redingote

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