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Learning embroidery from a mid 18th Century silk apron

Highly recommended references used within this article:

  1. '18th Century Embroidery Techniques' Gail Marsh. Guild of Master Craftsmen. 2006

  2. 'The Art of Dress' Jane Ashelford. National Trust 1996

  3. 'Old English Costumes' Harrods/Victoria & Albert Museum. Undated old publication.

  4. 'Fashioning Fashion' Sharon Sadako Takeda & Kaye Durland Spilker, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Delmonico Books/Prestel 2010

  5. 'What Clothes Reveal' Linda Baumgarten The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation/Yale University Press 2011

Baumgarten Page 57 - silk embroidered apron with full costume, apron 1730-40

Baumgarten Page 57 - silk embroidered apron with full costume, apron 1730-40

The superb image above, shows a lady's full dress around the mid 18th Century. It is a beautiful way to demonstrate how the 'flat' apron I am discussing here, would have been worn when pleated to the top. Notice that the rectangular shape is the same as with mine, although these aprons were often scalloped at the edges. The aprons were rarely heavily gathered at the top because the whole point of them was to show the embroidery work to the full advantage.

Having examined a couple of these aprons before, I was charmed by the range of techniques used in the embroidered motifs, almost as if it was made as a 'sampler' of fashionable style at the time. Marsh explains that there were two ways of obtaining such an accessory; either from a Master Craftsman of a professional embroidery workshop, or to be made at home. Often, older girls were given the task of decorating these pieces at home to learn fine embroidery, according to Marsh, and amazingly, they could be bought as a piece of silk with the design already traced upon it!

At the top of my piece, you can see that our worker has stopped filling in the motifs. Is this because she knows it will be pleated here, or did she know it would never be made up?

I like to think that this is the latter of the two, the embroidery being charming and so colourful, but also almost experimental in it's skill. The other enjoyable aspect is the combination of heavy and large motifs of the beginning of the Century, but blended with the scrolling smaller designs that show later fashion.

Bold flowers mix charmingly with tiny leaves and emerging buds.

This would have been a grand apron. Certainly not for everyday use! It would be worn by the very wealthiest of classes for special and evening events. It combines silk thread with metal, mostly silver as you can still see shining brightly at the back of the work.

This stomacher shows very similar scaled embroidery and motifs. Photographed from 'Fashioning Fashion' Page 75. English stomacher c1735. Silk & metal thread embroidery.

With a larger expanse to decorate, my apron shows very similar techniques and the same scrolling pattern.

However, the skill needed to complete such a piece, even if a young girl/ woman, is extraordinary. In 'The Art of Dress' Ashelford talks about: '....the very high level of workmanship that would be employed on such an accessory'. Page 117

So, if we now explore the embroidery techniques, all documented in Marsh, we begin to appreciate just how much skill has gone into the making of this apron.

Before we even begin, the silk thread would be carefully dyed to create the most beautiful and subtle shades and hues of each colour, to create the wonderful 'life' we see in 18th Century embroidery work.

This single large motif shows several stitches:

Couched thread. Marsh Page 42. - the loops around the flower head and the stem outlines are couched thread work. This involves taking a [usually gold or silver] thread across the face of the fabric, keeping it in position with tiny holding stitches that do go through the fabric.. Couched thread work could form an amazing array of shapes, and is economic in the use of precious threads, but by it's nature is fragile.

The inside of the stems are decorated with Herringbone stitch, Marsh Page 71

The lovely butterfly shape in metal and silk thread is Gaufrure embroidery, Marsh Page 40. Here, the metal thread couching is overlaid with a basket weave effect in silk thread.

The main theme of this apron design is glorious carnations. Here the carnation petals are in chain stitch. Not tambouring. Chain stitch is shown in Marsh, Page 72.

The base of the flower head is shaded beautifully with the use of long and short stitch. Here the stitches blend into each other and so the shading, here from green to yellow, is most impressive.

Long and short stitch, Marsh Page 71

The tiny blue flower buds are worked in satin stitch. Marsh 71 as above.

Now we come to the huge motifs that I learned most from. Thank goodness the apron was never lined! These motifs, so much more typical of the beginning of the Century, stand extraordinarily proud of the surface. They are 'lifted up' from below.

I looked to see the method underneath, [see image below], and at first I thought that paper had been used! This wouldn't surprise me, as many 18th Century textiles were stiffened with paper and card below.

Marsh, however, taught me that a very different method was employed.

Here we have Guipure embroidery, using a range of surface techniques using both metal thread and silk thread over a padding of string covered in wax. So the material seen in this photograph is waxed string!

This method made the motif really quite heavy,

[Note the split caused to the edge after 260 years!

These piece will never fail to amaze me!

To read about this method in great detail, go to Marsh, Pages 40, & 58.

I finish this blog with many stitches still to identify, and you can spend a lovely few hours searching for them.

And one of my favourite images, from the days when real people were allowed to model these wonderful fashions for exhibitions. We wouldn't dream of doing that any more! The Harrods and Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition, held at some point in the early 20th Century, delights us with a lady wearing an apron with a random design and apparently no symmetry. I love her!

As always, thank you for reading and a Happy Christmas to you all!

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