Made by Harriett: The Making

IMG_4545Remember Harriett?

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.

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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.

059

from The Encyclopedia of Needlework*

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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.

072

from The Encyclopedia of Needlework*

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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.

099

from The Encyclopedia of Needlework*

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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.

102

from The Encyclopedia of Needlework*

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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.

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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.

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36 thoughts on “Made by Harriett: The Making

  1. Lovely to have all the detail explained. Thank you. My comment….some of us are challenged by computers, smart phones etc, but seeing Harriet’s work I think we have it easy. 😉 But, yes, we can always learn and grow, no matter our age or the age we live in.

  2. Maybe Harriet was a teenager when she did this work and she was not yet a master of her craft. Where did you find this? It’s wonderful.

    • I only wish I could remember where I got it! I think it was probably in one of several boxes of old linens I got at an auction–I try to keep track of what I buy but this one huge lot overwhelmed me . . .

  3. Thank you for that tutorial! I have done this but in Linen that was no where near as fine as this. Not sure if I would dare 🙂 Yes, she was a treasure and I do hope you will keep this.

    • I bet Harriett did practiced on more loosely-woven linen, too, before she worked her way to this very fine stuff. I’ve never tried any of this type of stitching but I’m kind of intrigued. And, yes, I’ll keep this one . . .

  4. Thank you for explaining the techniques. I’ve seen some in the linens I’ve inherited, but never knew how the effects were achieved. Can this type of work be washed? (I assume it would need to be hand washed.)

    • I think it could be washed with no problem, unless there’s already fraying or other damage evident. I’d definitely do it by hand–fill a sink with tepid water and a tiny bit of Woolite (at least to start with–I guess you could try something stronger later, if necessary). Lay the cloth on top of the water and let it settle itself down in and soak. I wouldn’t agitate much. The other thing to try, if you think the threads are very fragile and likely to break with the weight of the water–put a towel in the water first, under the piece, and then use the towel as a sling to pull your treasure out of the water. This is what is recommended for old quilts, too, so the huge weight of the absorbed water doesn’t pull at delicate fibers.

  5. thank you for the detailed stitching lessons, I too, wonder if Harriet was in her early years of stitching. Stitching is so much more satisfying than computer and tech skills, no beautiful examples of them being treasured in 100 years.

    • I love my computer but you’re right, it’s all so evanescent. I worry a lot about the photos we take today–I print almost none of the ones I take so what does that mean for 100 years from now? The external hard drive I use will be completely obsolete by then . . .

      I think Harriett might’ve been fairly young but, as I wrote, a striver to great things! Up close, you can see some really pretty pedestrian stitching but the undertaking was still bold!

  6. I was impressed with Harriett’s handiwork before and now I really appreciate it. It was almost like a sampler for her, trying out different stitches. I only see beauty when I look at her finished product.

    • It does come across as a sampler! And I love that it looks like a learning exercise–it’s seems very authentic to me. I can relate to the human behind it!

  7. In the East it is commonly accepted that only the work of God is flawless and so, when necessary, they place a deliberate imperfection into their creations. I like that concept and can cheerfully report that all my creations carry imperfections, never deliberately made.

    I join with the other of your readers who wonder if Harriet was young and learning her stitches. Your descriptions cause me to think perhaps this was a type of sampler for her. As we may never know for sure, it is just lovely that in some serendipitous way her work has ended in your caring hands. You know I think there is quite a story there!

    • I’ve have never had to plan imperfections into my work either! They just seem to show up on their own . . .

      It makes me happy that Harriett’s work ended up with me, too. It kills me that I don’t remember where I got it–I bought four big boxes of nice linens at an auction last year and I suspect it was from one of those boxes. But I’ll never know for sure . . .

    • Wow–so you can really appreciate this, in a way that the rest of us may not! I keep thinking I’d like to try some of this work but my eyesight is the issue–it ain’t what it used to be!

    • I have tried hemstitching on the loom (and love it) but not the way Harriett did it with the double-turned hem. And I know the second technique I discussed, where she removed threads from the weft then twined a new thread through the bunches of warp threads, can be done on the loom, too, but I haven’t tried it. I think ti would be a LOT easier to do on the loom than off, though! Maybe I should do a piece of plain weave at 20 epi and then experiment . . . .

  8. Nice post! I got into cut hardanger for some years and really enjoyed doing it, though I held my breath every time I cut. And of course the cross stitch fabric I used was nowhere near as fine as Harriet’s. One of my Aunts did huck embroidery for a time, and I found it quite interesting and liked the graphic nature of it. My Great Aunties were into painting on porcelain rather than working with textiles…

  9. Harriet’s tray cloth is a treasure–a signature piece! Thanks for honoring her and sharing it with us. The woven version of the twisted grouped threads is called leno. A good picture of it is at I haven’t done it in other than samplers to learn the technique, but it’s one of several hand-manipulated woven laces. Hemstitching on the loom adds a nice touch of class, but does take a lot of time. I use it to make a piece extra special.

    • I have tried hemstitching on the loom (and off, actually–it’s a lot easier ON) and love the look of it. I’ve seen directions for leno but haven’t tried it yet. I’m thinking it would be easier to do on the loom, too, under tension, than the way Harriett did it!

  10. I love this handmade piece! Actually I done many embroidered pieces myself back in Russia. i know how much work has to go on such an intricate details. Really appreciated!

  11. Well, good old Harriet. And good old Kerry, for helping me understand Harriet’s achievement. And incidentally, helping me understand more fully the processes involved in making some of the family linens we have in our possession.

  12. Pingback: Remember Me, When This You See | Love Those "Hands at Home"

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