Harriett was a maker, and a striver.
We can’t say we know Harriett well at all but we do know one thing—whatever else Harriett was (Daughter? Mother? Wife? Nun? Maiden aunt?), she was highly skilled with needle and thread.
This pretty tray cloth was certainly not the first thing she ever made!
At first look, you might’ve said, “Oh, pretty. Pretty, but too fussy for my taste.”
It is fussy and not modern-looking at all, but I want you to appreciate the skill, and efforts, that went into it, a set of skills that are stunning by today’s standards. Even though you and I may never use these skills, we can still learn a lot from Harriett.
So, let’s not think about the maker right now but, rather, the making. How was this tray cloth created?
Harriett combined several skills with which many women of her era would’ve had at least some familiarity.
First of all, she embroidered her tray cloth. The embroidery style she used makes me think of “society silk” embroidery that was all the rage, first in England, then in America, in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Society silk embroidery was done in single-strand silk thread; the embroidery, which was most often of flowers, was detailed and precise. The silk was available in hundreds of colors so the best society silk embroidery was subtly varied, highly detailed, and realistic. You could expect the backs of the embroidery to look as perfect as the front.
Harriett’s embroidery is clearly inspired by society silk. She worked in fine silk on fine linen, and used only two stitches, running stitch for outlines and satin stitch to fill in, as was common in society silk work.
Harriett’s work does not match the highest level of skill you can find in this sort of embroidery—she doesn’t do a lot with subtle color shading and detail and the back of the work is a little messy—but the embroidery is delicate and finely wrought.
Another technique Harriett used, which really sets this piece apart, is the use of cutwork. Cutwork can be fairly simple or extraordinarily complex but the basic principle is the same—certain threads in the woven linen are cut and removed from the fabric. This would be easy to do in a rough fabric, like burlap, but I can’t imagine doing it the way Harriett did, in very fine linen!
I did my best to count and found that this linen has about 70 to 80 threads per inch; each thread is finer than sewing threads you use today. So, Harriett was carefully snipping certain threads, without cutting others, and gingerly pulling them out only, then, to introduce new threads back in, to create her patterns and stabilize the fabric.
She used cutwork in several ways. The simplest was the hemstitch she used.
For this, she pulled out one or two threads around the edge of her piece, double-turned the hem up, next to the small line created by the drawn threads, and used tiny stitches to secure the hem and create a tiny ladder effect.
Another, more complicated, skill was the open work that created the straight lines through the work. Here, a number of threads, probably 35 or so, were cut from the cloth and pulled out—basically a section of this delicate fabric was unwoven. Then, a new thread was added, which was used to weave in and out of bunches of the remaining cross threads, to create a regular and intricate pattern.
Harriett pulled out both horizontal and vertical threads in her piece, meaning the open areas crossed and basically created a section that was completely open. Here, Harriett has added “spiders.” She used the center threads she had added in the previous stage, to weave in and out of the bunches of threads. She treated these threads as spokes in a wheel and wove her thread around them, over and under, for the spider web effect.
Harriett also used cutwork and drawnwork to create lacy areas in her tray cloth. In the square and rectangular areas of the cloth, she removed a lot of threads running in both directions, leaving only a few intact. She finished the outside edges of these boxes with infinitesimal buttonhole stitches, so they wouldn’t fray further, and then added threads to draw the remaining threads into a star-like pattern.
Whew! That’s amazing work, Harriett! And to think, you did it entirely by hand, in sunlight or lamplight.
Harriett’s work is excellent but, truly, it is not at the expert skill level achieved by some artisans. If you look really closely, you can see little mistakes and sloppy stitching.
But who wants to look that closely?! After this time with her, Harriett feels like my friend and I cherish the work of my friends even more when I can see the imprint of their hands, and their humanity, in what they do.
Harriett seems to me to have been a striver, someone who was testing her skills and pushing herself to a more intricate, more difficult level of work. She was building on work she had done in the past, to see where desire and persistence could take her.
Harriett impresses and inspires me. The work I’m engaged in, 100 years after Harriett put down her needle and thimble, is much different work. But the impulse to create, and to challenge myself, to grow and strive, is no different for me than it was for her.
Thank you, Harriett, for reminding me that hard work and the joy of learning something new knows no age.
* These illustrations come from the amazing Encyclopedia of Needlework, written by Therese de Dillmont in 1886 and available for free through Project Gutenberg.