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Dresden Work & Shadow Stitch - an 18th Century puzzle.


Learning about Dresden work is a journey. First, you see the wonderful design as a whole, noticing the 18th Century motifs applied to recognisable 18th Century clothing accessories. Then you start to marvel at the range of fillings, made by pulling threads together, using a counted thread technique. Then you learn that Dresden includes such a range of embroidery stitches, that you start to look for the specific stitches used in each piece. This is where I am on the journey!

Dresden embroidery became fashionable in the mid 18th Century, although it had existed before that, and was so fine that it served as a suitable alternative to the best lace, which was extremely expensive. The source of Dresden work was Dresden in Germany [ the name of the town becoming the name of the technique, just as with most lace]. Apparently becoming so desirable that it, too, costed a great amount to purchase. The technique then spread to many other area's of Europe, including England & Scotland, the pieces taking on an individual style in each centre. The style of Dresden work was even slightly different in the Saxony region around Dresden.

Which is why it is so difficult!

Learning from Heather Toomer:

The best source I know for understanding Dresden work is 'Embroidered with White' 2008. Heather Toomer Antique Lace Pub.

This book is really essential if you wish to learn about 18th Century Dresden embroidery in depth.

I must stress though, that any mistakes in this blog belong entirely to me, and I am still on the learning curve!

Dresden work belongs to the generic term of 'whitework' for embroidery styles. Whitework is quite simply white embroidery threads used on a white background cloth - a monochrome design that includes many styles of the 18th and 19th Centuries.

A well known whitework embroidery style of the 19th Century is Ayrshire work.

Beginning in the circa 1820's, Ayrshire embroidery also includes little fillings within the embroidery stitches, but true Ayrshire work fillings are of lace techniques, rather than pulled thread or drawn thread work. True Ayrshire also had quite a short fashionable life in the 19th Century, just as Dresden work did in the 18th Century.

Image 1 - Late Regency, 19th Century cuffs with Ayrshire lace work fillings.

Image 2 - 18th Century Dresden fillings of pulled thread work - note the variety of patterns.

Dresden embroidery was fashionable from the late 1740's through to the 1780's. After this, a far lighter and more airy decoration was desired and the Dresden centres and workshops slowly declined. It had been far too time consuming and intricate to produce, too expensive to purchase, and changing fashions dictated a more diverse range of accessories that needed to be more affordable!

The pulled thread work was still used, but over a far narrower expanse, perhaps just on small area's of the work and without the diverse range of patterns.

This lighter style continued through to the Regency period, so how do we determine whether whitework is 18th or 19th Century? Toomer shows the way, because a new embroidery stitch comes into the Regency period that would never be found in the 18th Century; Padded satin stitch.

Image 3: This is 19th Century padded satin stitch which stands proud of the surface. It is never seen in Dresden work

Padded whitework embroidery would never be seen on 18th Century Dresden embroidery, which was flat. At the start of the 19th Century we see whitework styles that clearly raise the motifs above the surface of the fabric, and is therefore no longer flat in dimensions.

Applique & shadow work in Dresden embroidery

Anyone still with me? If so, thank you for your patience!

The images above are of an 18th Century kerchief that I sold recently. I hope that you can see, that the 'solid' parts, ie; the leaves and scrolls, are worked in satin stitch.

I believe that most of the Dresden pieces I have examined over the years are worked in a similar way.

This is the point of my Blog. My new finds also have 'solid' area's. But not of satin stitch!

Here, I will give you again the details of Toomer's books, that I am learning from:

1] 'Embroidered in White' 2008. Heather Toomer Antique Lace.

2] 'White-Embroidered Costume Accessories The 1790's to 1840's.' 2013. Published as above.

The first book covers the 18th Century up to the 1780's and the second covers the 1790-1840's period. Each book has a section where Toomer briefly described the stitches used in Whitework embroidery of the relevant period. I have been following the individual stitches used, and trying to identify them in each piece I examine. It is so useful for trying to date an antique Whiteworked textile.

As Toomer makes clear, this research method is not 100% accurate. If a lady is born in the 1740's and learns to embroider, she will keep these skills with her for the remainder of her life! She may abandon them for fashion, but in provincial pieces she will often continue to use her old skills for as long as it gives her pleasure. So we can only use stitch techniques as a general guide to dates.

You can find the Glossary of 18th Century stitches on pages 13 - 21 of Toomer's first book.

The Glossary of stitches used from 1790 to the early 19th Century on pages 8 - 18 of the second book.

When you have an actual piece of embroidery to examine, many of the stitches are quite easy to identify. Others, far more tricky! I would put them into three categories:

a] Easy - some stitches are simple to identify, such as blanket stitch and satin stitch. Still used today in fact, but the quality of the stitch is far poorer, the later the date. If 18th Century, these stitches are superb. Go to the 20th Century and they are often large stitches, poorly executed.

b] Recognisable but more difficult stitches. For example, Toomer, tells us that up to the 1760's, chain stitch would be worked by hand with a needle and thread. After this decade, tambouring came along with exactly the same result, but far quicker to work. It is very difficult indeed to recognise the difference between chain stitch and tambouring.

Another example is running stitch, probably the most simple of stitching. Running stitch is used for Regency dresses. The stitches are very small. Go to the same period 100 years later, and Edwardian women were employed by the 'new' department stores to make lovely baby clothes using running stitch of just the same quality! You cannot date clothing by running stitch!

c] Here we come to the impossible stitches, and the reason for this Blog! Toomer describes Applique work and Shadow work in the glossaries named above. I have never seen either of these before in 18th Century Dresden work, until I bought the German examples. SO EXCITING! The pieces in question are first, the sleeve ruffle selling in the shop right now. Second, the piece not available for sale yet, which seems to be some kind of 'turnover' kerchief, which I am still investigating.

I will take each at a time, although they are very similar in the end presentation.

Applique work on the Sleeve Ruffle [engageante]

If you are like me, you will associate applique work with the 1930's. A good effort made, but quite amateur! Rather clumsy and looking home made.

We are wrong! 18th Century applique work is very fine, the two layers of fabric [usually muslin] being edge stitched with tiny couched thread stitches that can hardly be seen. Within the applique work we can often see tiny eyelets, finished with overcast or buttonholed stitches, as in this sleeve ruffle. Amazingly tiny work. The point? To create a dense motif that stands out from the muslin background.

Sleeve ruffle - applique work using couched thread edges to join two layers of muslin.

Flowers, leaves and scrolls.

NOTE: the tiny eyelets worked in buttonhole stitch.

Shadow stitch - An 18th Century puzzle!

Finally, and if anyone can help me I would be so grateful, a stitching method that, on the surface, appears just like applique work but is completely different, I have at last found shadow stitch! But why did it exist?

Here we see the 'turnover' type kerchief that will need lots of research:

Note the Dresden pulled thread fillings, the typical motifs of the 18th Century, and the 'solid' details in the scrolls and leaves. Applique work? No!

The photographs are zoomed and not the best, but here, I will try to show you 'shadow stitch.'

Here is the underside of shadow stitch. You should be able to see a graduated herringbone stitch that creates a shape, in this case, leaves.

Here is the face side of the work! A simple, leaf motif, with what appears to be back stitch outline.

[Note the chain stitch leaf stems].

But these are not back stitches! They are the face side outline of the underside herringbone stitches!


This final image shows both the face and the underside of the work undertaken to make these leaf motifs.

And my question - why go to all of this trouble using shadow work, skilled indeed, when applique work achieved almost the same end effect?

This is my 18th Century Dresden puzzle!

Thank you so much for reading - suggestions? Go to the Contact page!

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