Skip to main content

Needle Arts

A mastery of needlework was an essential skill for any young woman in the 19th century. It was an expression of a woman’s upbringing, education, and character, as well their potential suitability to being a wife and running a household. These possessions, therefore, are an important articulation of a woman’s life and often how she can identify herself in the historic record. These artifacts offer us an intimate perspective of 19th century women and remind us that these individuals were alive. Knowing that Hylah and her daughters spent time creating and working on these objects gives one a sense of personal connection between the past and the present.

Berlin Work

The Victorian love of embellishment for the decoration of every conceivable surface — walls, tabletops and furniture in parlors, dining rooms and bedrooms — was realized through a variety of fancy needlecrafts including embroidery, beadwork, tatting, and crocheting. One of the most popular needlework forms of the time was known as Berlin work. This wool embroidery, worked on a wide mesh canvas originated in Berlin in the early 19th century. Berlin work used simple tent or cross stitches and was therefore less complicated (and faster) to execute than earlier embroidery work where elaborate and varied stitching was showcased. Berlin work was bright and colorful, illustrating a broad range of subject matter, from religious scenes to flowers, animals, exotic birds, and geometrics. These designs (along with all manner of fancy work and dressmaking) were often copied from a profusion of home management and decorating manuals (the “how-to” books of their day) and monthly magazines such as Godey’s Lady’s Book, available to 19th century women. Embroidery designs from these publications were printed in a grid format, then hand-colored, with instructions for transferring the design to canvas. Women no longer needed to draft their own designs or work out the colors — they now had a “ready-made” source of inspiration. Predesigned patterns along with their relative ease of execution, made Berlin work very wide-spread and popular until almost the end of the 19th century.