17 February, 2011

I am constantly reading sources which dismiss the artistic merit and skill of hand-crafts. Hence, it is always nice to come across a more positive portrayal. In April 1904 the editor of Home Journal challenged contemporary trivialisation of hand-crafts when she wrote:

“I do not agree with the remarks made by some that a woman who is fond of needlework is lacking intelligence… Deft fingers are a possession to be prized.” (Fletcher 1989, 1)

I have undertaken some background research into the techniques which I would like to explore and my findings are outlined below.


Quilting has only become a “housewife hobby” in recent times. 1800-1850 is considered the high point of British quilting and many professional quilters operated during the 18th and 19th centuries (Rae etal. 2010, 77). For example, padded quilted collars and petticoats revealed below skirts without centre front seams were fashionable (Williamson 2007, 15). The basic quilting techniques include patchwork, appliqué and ornamental embroidery. I was particularly intrigued by the concept of signature quilts, which featured embroidered names of those who had made a donation to a project (Rae etal. 2010, 57).

Quilted petticoat, Marseilles, c. 1800


The conceptions of lace as a frivolous ornament belies its “rich social and cultural history…a textile holding many different stories” (Williamson 2007, 15). I use the following characteristics to define lace: fine detail, repetitive motifs, spaces v. solid areas, often transparent, decorative edges. There are two primary lace techniques, needle and bobbin and the processes for making these have remained largely unchanged since the 16th century (Brown 2004, 7). Needle lace is constructed stitch by stitch, entirely free of base fabric, whereas bobbin lace is plaited and woven over a pattern attached to a pillow.

While voluptuous structured lace was popular in the Renaissance period, fashions became softer and less elaborately decorative during the 18th century, decreasing demand for lace. Hence, the Flemish industry developed bobbin lace with softness and draping qualities of muslin (Brown 2004, 11). Englishman John Heathcoat invented the bobbin-net machine in 1808 (Brown 2004, 14). While the Industrial Revolution heralded the advent of machine produced lace for commercial fashions, hand-made lace was still prevalent until the 1930s (Shepherd 2007, 11). While lace generally only features in contemporary womens wear, it was not always a gendered textile. Rather,until the 1800s lace was considered a symbol of wealth and status to be worn by both sexes (Shepherd 2007, 11) and it was only during the 19th century that lace ceased to appear in men’s fashion (Brown 2004, 14). In the post-industrial period, lace became exclusively associated with women, babies and homes (Shepherd 2007, 11). At this time women began to wear hand-made antique laces (Brown 2004, 15). The time invested in producing lace has engendered it with a “reverential” quality. Hence, in contemporary fashion lace is most often used for ceremonial garments (eg. bridal or christening). These are garments for “events imbued with purity, love and personal memories” (Williamson 2007, 15)

There are numerous types of lace. Reticella is elaborate drawn thread work from Italy, which was popular throughout Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. Introduced to England by John Ruskin (art critic associated with pre-Raphaelites), it became known as Ruskin lace (Franklin & Jarvis 2005, 47). Richelieu cutwork features cut-away shapes with edges connected by buttonhole bars decorated with picots. It was developed in 16th century Italy, where it was referred to as Venetian lace. Cardinal Richelieu, who was principal minister to Louis XIII, saw growing market potential for lace, and encouraged the transfer of skills from Italian to French crafts-people (Franklin & Jarvis 2005, 33). Pulled thread work became popular in Europe from the 13th century and was made more delicate in the 19th century with the use of muslin and cambric (Franklin & Jarvis 2005, 33 67). Broderie Anglaise, which is relatively simple to produce, developed from Czechoslovakian peasant embroidery and was brought to England in the 9th century (Franklin & Jarvis 2005, 25).

Richelieu cutwork bag (Franklin & Jarvis 2005)

Drawn thread tablecloth (Franklin & Jarvis 2005)

Mountmellick embroidery (Franklin & Jarvis 2005)


I refer to embroidery as the ornamentation of cloth, rather than textile construction involved in lace-making, crochet and tatting. Given the widespread post-modern association of home embroidery with restrictive and passifying constructs of femininity (Anscombe 1984; Araujo 2010; Buckley 1986; Chavé 1992; McEwen 1993; Parker and Pollock 1981; Robertson 2010), it is interesting to note that many iconised male painters of the Renaissance period (generally considered a time of artistic and scientific liberation) also engaged in embroidery, for example Sandro Botticelli, Antonio Pollaiuolo, Raffaelino del Garbo and Raphael (Fletcher 1989, 2). In a contemporary Western society which fosters adoration of celebrity artists/designers, the anonymity of domestically produced embroidery has perhaps operated as a barrier to recognition of the artistic merit involved (Fletcher 1989, 1). Nonetheless, throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries a number of women did sign their work (Fletcher 1989, 3). I am particularly drawn to the work of three well-renowned 18th century embroiderers, Mary Delany, Mary Knowles, Mary Linwood. The Schiffi embroidery machine, which was invented in Switzerland in the 1880s, made embroidered clothing far more accessible, but also cultivated the reverence now associated with hand worked needlecraft (Shepherd 2007, 12).

Mary Delany embroidery

Mary Delany embroidery detail

I am always conscious of the need to produce work which reflects my own experience, environment and ancestry. Hence, although much of my research has focused on British and European needlework (partly due to the abundance of existing research in this area), I am particularly fascinated by the role domestic arts has played in the lives of Australian women. With fewer industrial resources and servants than their English counterparts, Australian colonial women needed to produce more domestically (Fletcher 1989, 4). While early colonial embroidery generally emulated English needlework designs, in the late 19th century women began to appropriate Australian plants in floral motifs (Fletcher 1989, 7). Although I do not want to restrict my design inspiration, there is a certain romantic ‘Zen’ feeling about only using botanical illustrations of native Australian plants to inform the shapes of my garments and textile designs.


Although I want to be aware of the history of domestic art and evolution of traditional techniques, I do not want my garments to be literal re/creations. Rather, I am inspired by the way in which contemporary textile practitioners appropriate needlecraft techniques. One practitioner with whom I feel a particular affinity is Lyn Randall (2005), who writes: “ I adore delicacy and detail, a natural purity that is produced from informed and thoughtful design.”

Lyn Randall lace lampshades

Amanda Clayton: dense areas of darning stitches in silk floss thread on sheer silk (Franklin & Jarvis 2005)

Amanda Clayton: various techniques using silk floss and rayon on pina cloth, silk chiffon and silk net (Franklin & Jarvis 2005)

Emi Nimura: herringbone stitches, french knots and couching (Franklin & Jarvis 2005)

Margaret Clementson: drawn thread panels (Franklin & Jarvis 2005)

Sally Saunders: cutwork on fine linen with stranded cotton (Franklin & Jarvis 2005)

Arjan Van Arendonk



Browne, C. 2004. Lace from the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: V & A Publications.

Fletcher, M. 1989. Needlework in Australia. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Franklin, T. and Jarvis, N. 2005. Contemproary White Work. London: Batsford.

Randall, L. 2005. Lyn Randall, High Wycombe.http://www.nationalglasscentre.com/exhibitions/artists/lyn-randall.html (accessed 15 February, 2011).

Shepherd, R. 2007. Lace, threading a history: 10-13. In Heffer, C. (ed) 2007. Lace: Contemporary Textile Exhibition and New Works Cecilia Heffer 2005-2007. Sydney: University of Technology.

Williamson, L. 2007. Transforming Lace: 14-17. In Heffer, C. (ed) 2007. Lace: Contemporary Textile Exhibition and New Works Cecilia Heffer 2005-2007. Sydney: University of Technology.

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