Vintage Handiwork
By Karen Parr-Moody

Handiwork done with needle and thread, such as embroidery and needlepoint, dates back to ancient Egypt. Since then, many cultures have exercised the skill with similar methods but different designs. GasLamp is filled with charming items that have been graced with one form or another of this handiwork.

After World War I, travel became so affordable that taking a vacation to Central America, South America or the Asian tropics was considered to be the height of fashion. During the 1950s and 1960s, many women would have returned from such trips carrying a novelty resort bag, such as the darling Jack Russell handbag from the Philippines, seen in the photo at right ($18; Booth S-104).  They came in a standard bucket shape or in a figural shape, such as that of a fish, naturally.

Included in the design of such bags were hand-embroidered details, such as raffia flowers or beads. Since embroidery can be done on plain fabric in a sort of freehand style, with different materials, it is within the realm of imagination to see such a figure as this Jack Russell terrier embroidered in raffia on linen. Such a resort bag would be perfectly at home on the smash TV hit "Mad Men," which has revived the swinging style of the 1960s. And what modern beach trip or a cruise wouldn't be improved by a novel resort bag?

Writings from the 2nd and early 3rd centuries indicate that some Christians began to baptize infants at this time. In recent centuries, the ceremony of christening has included infants wearing flowing white christening gowns, such as the one in the photo, left ($85; Booth B-106). This white cotton christening gown has Broderie Anglaise ("English Embroidery") needlework on the chest. This is a technique that incorporates features of embroidery, cutwork and needle lace. This type of needlework became popular in England in the 1800s and creates a beautiful pattern of eyelets bound with buttonhole stitches (see inset below). Many gowns of the Victorian era feature such handiwork.


During the Victorian era, schoolchildren were taught the standards of reading, writing and arithmetic. But while the boys veered off into additional subjects, such as bookkeeping or geography, young girls were generally taught sewing and needlework. Indeed, if one looks at school tablets from the late 1800s, one will find a great number of subjects to keep young hands busy, including cookery and woodwork.

The Victorian ideal of femininity meant that women of the era were seen as hothouse flowers; their place was in the home. In their spare time, they might pick up a needle with which to create objects of beauty for the home, as this era was underscored by beautiful furnishings. Married to the Victorians' industry was a fashion for upholstered furniture, which prompted the fusing of a durable surface with embroidered works of art. The round slipper stool in the photo, left, is an example of the sort of handcrafted household items Victorians would have made ($30; B-309).

Going back hundreds of years ago, one finds no pre-printed patterns available for needleworkers. So a stitched model was needed. Seamstresses would sew samples onto a piece of cloth as a reminder of new and interesting examples of patterns and use them as a reference. This created what became known as a needlepoint "sampler," such as the one in the photo, right ($295; Booth B-108). Later on, samplers were produced as a demonstration of the artisan's skill in needlework and girls were taught to make them from an early age.






The horse picture in the frame, left, is yet another example of needlepoint. It is in a Victorian folk art frame that has crossed corners, which adds the perfect tone for the overall look ($188.95; Booth B-113).

People often say, "They don't make things like they used to." But when it comes to needlework, it is absolutely true. So much of the art has been put into the domain of machines today. So it is wonderful to discover vintage items that were created the old-fashioned way, by hand.  


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