Here in New York City, spring has been slow to appear. Bryant Park finally has pansies and daffodils, but it’s still been cold and blustery most of the month. We thought some embroidered spring flowers would help coax the real ones from their warm ground.
The English have a history of being passionate gardeners. Gardening was considered mankind’s expression of the Garden of Eden, worked on a personal scale in his or her garden plot. In early seventeenth-century England, when this picture of a garden was embroidered, there was a fashion for embroidering flowers on clothing, especially women’s jackets, men’s and women’s caps. Home furnishings, such as cushions, curtains, bed valences, wall hangings also received this allover floral decoration.
This spectacular example of these embroidered jackets belongs to the Costume Institute atthe Metropolitan Museum of Art. The embroidery stitch-work on this is especially fine and it must have been made to fit a tiny body. Not only were the English interested in all kinds of flowers (note how carefully this lily is colored), but often the embroideries included birds, bugs, and caterpillars too.
The depiction of naturalistic flowers and bugs were an expansion of the tendency toward scientific observation which developed during this time. The earliest microscopes were invented in the Netherlands, in the 1590s. This passion for the close observation of nature began much earlier, though. Books depicting plants and animals were popular throughout the sixteenth century.
Engravings of flowers and bugs were published in pattern books called “Miscellanies”, which included images for lace and embroidery, painting, decorative plaster, or wallpaper. This is a page from an edition of Richard Shorleyker’s “Schole-house for the Needle”, which was published in 1632.
Here is a man’s nightcap, also from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, embroidered with birds, butterflies, and other flowers of the sort printed in these miscellanies.
Here is another example, from a different cap, of the Early Bird catching his breakfast.
Sometimes the plants were embroidered on plain-weave linen, then cut out and applied onto richer ground fabrics, often as decorative hangings or cushion covers. These were called “slips”. This branch of pear tree is one of these that hasn’t been applied to any other cloth yet. This slip is on a larger sampler of needlework in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
For other applications, the fine silks could be embroidered directly on a plain linen ground fabric even for bedcovers or hangings, as are this lovely primrose and iris. These flowers are details from a cushion cover in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sometimes flowers like this were embroidered onto sheets and towels as decorative borders. Trailing vine patterns like these were often included in girl’s educational samplers as well.
Finally, this desire for intricately worked flowery objects led to some very interesting beaded objects, like this one, also from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
These images were all taken from the exhibition catalog
“‘Twixt Art and Nature”: English Embroidery from the Metropolitan Museum of Art 1580-1700 “,
which can be found in both the Art Reference stacks and the 5th floor stacks at
NK 9243 .A1 W37 2008.