“Orders of the Daye” – August-September 2003
Flowers, Plants and Fishes, Beasts, Birds, Flyes and Bees:
Hills, Dales, Plaines, Skies, Seas, Rivers and Trees;
There’s nothing neere at hand or furthest sought,
But with the Needle may be shap’d and wrought.
In cloth of Arras I have often seen,
Men’s figurd counterfeits so like have been,
That if the parties selfe had been in place,
Yet Art would vye with Nature for the grace.
Moreover, Posies rare, and Anagrams,
Signifique searching sentences from names,
True History, or various pleasant fiction,
In sundry colours mixt, with Arts commixion,
All in Dimension, Ovals, Squares and Rounds,
Arts life included within Natures Bounds,
So that Art seemeth meerley naturall,
In forming shapes so Geometricall.
John Taylor 1631
This highly individual type of raised embroidery flourished in its original form for only a
few decades of the 17th century. Although it is often know to collectors and modern
embroiderers as stumpwork, there is every reason to believe that, in common with the
professional embroiderer of the 15th and 16th centuries, the 17th century domestic
embroiderer referred to her work simply as ‘raised’, ‘embossed’, or perhaps ‘embosted’
Its capacity for conveying life and humour, and the way in which it combines many
different embroidery and lace-making techniques make this type of work an ideal vehicle
for modern embroiderers seeking to achieve similar effects in a contemporary idiom.
Fascinating and enjoyable in themselves, 17th century raised embroideries provide a rich
source of ideas and techniques.
Raised embroidery flourished between about 1640 and 1680, during the reigns of
Charles I and Charles II, though work of an earlier date does exist, and embroidery in
this style continued until the end of the 17th century and a little later. It is generally
regarded as a domestic embroidery, but there is little precise information about the
many people who stitched the great quantity of panels, boxes and caskets, mirror
surrounds, cushions, book-covers and other items.
For Tent-worke, Raised-work, Laid-work, Net-worke,
Most Curious Purles, or rare Italian Cut-worke,
Fine Ferne-stitch, Fisher-stitch, Irish-stitch, and Queen-stitch,
The Spanish-stitch, Rosemary-stitch, and Mowse-stitch,
The smarting Whip-stitch, Back-stitch, and the Crosse-stitch,
All these are good, and these we must allow,
And these are everywhere in practise now.
The training necessary to achieve the high standard of 17th century embroidery was
begun at an early age, and needlework formed an increasingly important part of a girl’s
education. Ralph Verney wrote of his eight-year-old daughter, ‘being a girl she shall not
learn Latin, so she will have more time to learn breeding hereafter and needlework too.’
The detailed household accounts kept by Lady Grisell Baillie of Mellerstain House in
Scotland record the education of her two daughters in 1707. The instructions for Grisie,
aged fourteen, include:
To rise by seven a clock and goe about her duty of reading etc etc and
be drest and come to breakfast at nine, to play of the spinet till eleven,
from eleven till twelve to write and read French, at two a clock to sew
her seam till four, at four learn arithmetic, after that dance and play
herself until supper and be in bed at nine.
How was it done? Well the nearest form in modern day is a collage. Remember how as
children we used gum and paper, with maybe the odd pipe cleaner and piece of material
to create a picture? Well, that is the basic form of stumpwork: a collage of embroidery
consisting of various pieces and different stitches put together to form a picture. As we
would expect in the 17th century, the picture would usually have a religious theme, or if
you were of a Royalist family, the King and Queen would be prominent.
First you chose your picture subject. A Puritan family would maybe cover their casket
with scenes from the Old Testament story of the life of Joseph. You started with your
piece of silk stretched over a wooden frame to keep it taut, then just like a painting, you
started with the background. This could be painted or embroidered, or even left blank
with just the colour of the silk showing. A lot of the embroideries of the period had
flowers and trees in the background, with butterflies and mythical figures, often out of
proportion to the rest of the picture. Designs would be of bold foliage with exotic flowers
growing on a small hill, sometimes with rabbits, deer and turbaned figures, denoting a
growing interest in Eastern design. With the establishment of the Dutch and English East
India Companies, rare and expensive Chinese and Japanese items such as lacquerware,
ceramics, painted and embroidered cottons and silks came to Britain.
Then came the figures. Jackets and trousers would be made separately. The shape
needed was mapped out with a strong thread, tacked down on a piece of strong
material, and then the colour chosen woven across the shape, rather like a tiny piece of
woven material. The stitches for this weaving would vary, so the texture of each item
would be different - for instance a skirt could be made in several panels. Once the
weaving was completed the strong thread would be released from the strong material,
and the shape needed was ready for attaching to the embroidery. To make the raised
effect, sheep’s wool would be stuffed underneath. The faces were made by cutting a
small oval of material, usually cotton, and with small stitches a gathering thread would
be run round the edges. When this was pulled tight, the centre was again stuffed with
wool, raising the face, onto which the eyes, nose and mouth could be embroidered.
Hands would be made of bound pieces of wire covered with silk, which could be then
moved into any shape or posture required. Hair could be made from dyed wool,
embroidery thread or felted material, again added to the picture as necessary.
The picture would slowly build up into the complete article. Then came the time when
the material would be gummed to the box side or mirror surround chosen to be
If you have the luck to see a piece of original stumpwork, do remember that the colours
have spent three hundred years fading. I once saw a magnificent casket which had been
embroidered on four sides, but one side had always been kept against a wall out of
direct light. The colours were truly sumptuous, rich and vibrant, whereas the other three
sides were beautifully muted with age.
I leave you with another piece of verse by John Taylor, from his book “The Needle’s
And for my countries quiet, I should like,
That woman-kinde should use no other Pike,
It will increase their peace, enlarge their store,
To use their tongues less, and their needles more.
This article first appeared in “The Parliament Scoute”, the magazine of the Roundhead
Association, and is reproduced here with the permission of the author/editor.