[No: XLIII | By Viveka Hansen]

The long history of whitework embroidery has always fascinated me – how by using the same white linen or cotton sewing-thread in a natural way it developed from the actual sewing of garments and household linen to additionally adorn collars, linings, pillow-cases and all sorts of edgings on fabric. These decorations could be everything from very simple borders to highly skilled art forms combined with other types of embroidery and lace making. Just like the earlier posts describing historical reproductions of Swedish textiles, this text focuses on my attempts to copy a few examples of whitework, the materials used and a brief history of the traditions around this particular handcraft. Additionally emphasising on the techniques’ possibilities, limitations, beauty and the daily life of the embroiderers in southernmost Sweden.

 Close up study of a linen pillow-case made in 1838 demonstrating the embroiderer’s skills in various whitework stitching. Borrby parish, Ingelstad district, Skåne, Sweden.(Courtesy of: The Nordic Museum, detail of NM.0098458, Creative Commons).

Close up study of a linen pillow-case made in 1838 demonstrating the embroiderer’s skills in various whitework stitching. Borrby parish, Ingelstad district, Skåne, Sweden.(Courtesy of: The Nordic Museum, detail of NM.0098458, Creative Commons).

Strict geometrical patterning as on the pillow-case above dominated the skilled embroiderers’ work in southernmost Skåne in the early 19th century, a style that had its origin in the Renaissance tradition of shaping and structuring works of art in symmetrical designs. Even if drawn-thread works have been found in embroideries dating as early as 300-200 BC in Egyptian graves – among other places – the perfection of this style reached its peak in 15th and 16th century Italy. In this geographical area the advanced embroidery became known as Reticella, using complicated cutwork and drawn-thread work for making scalloped borders etc.

A second close-up detail of the same pillow-case, additionally showing a monogram in red cross stitch and net embroidery. Made in Borrby parish, Ingelstad district, Skåne, Sweden in 1838. (Courtesy of: The Nordic Museum, detail of NM.0098458, Creative Commons).

A second close-up detail of the same pillow-case, additionally showing a monogram in red cross stitch and net embroidery. Made in Borrby parish, Ingelstad district, Skåne, Sweden in 1838. (Courtesy of: The Nordic Museum, detail of NM.0098458, Creative Commons).

In Sweden just as in many other European countries it became customary among the wealthy in the 16th and 17th centuries to decorate both garments and bedlinen with various whitework and drawn-thread work techniques, as pointed out by the late textile historian Anna-Maja Nylén in the comprehensive book Swedish Handcraft. This can be studied on many portraits of the time – shirts, collars and linen headgears were often richly decorated with skilfully made whitework as well as needle- or bobbin-laces. However, linen was an expensive material and first became more widely spread in the society in the early 18th century when flax growing increased. At that time, many areas in Sweden developed their own specialities and patterns often influenced the early geometrical designs with its roots in the Renaissance. Southernmost Skåne was one such area, from where my attempts to reproduce some whitework has originated.

 The inspiration for some of my stitching was copied from this exquisite whitework sampler sewn in the year 1800. This sampler includes 34 variations of whitework patterning on a very fine linen – 28 threads/cm, handwoven and sewn with the finest hand spun threads. However the linen for my reproduction was coarser (14 threads/cm) in structure, due to the difficulty in finding such a fine quality linen for embroidery. (Photo: From the publication ‘Ur Skånska syskrin’ p. 10).

The inspiration for some of my stitching was copied from this exquisite whitework sampler sewn in the year 1800. This sampler includes 34 variations of whitework patterning on a very fine linen – 28 threads/cm, handwoven and sewn with the finest hand spun threads. However the linen for my reproduction was coarser (14 threads/cm) in structure, due to the difficulty in finding such a fine quality linen for embroidery. (Photo: From the publication ‘Ur Skånska syskrin’ p. 10).

Here my attempt to reproduce four different whitework embroidery styles on linen (14 threads/cm) with fine 2-ply linen thread (a type of linen thread also used for making hand-made bobbin laces). Top left: a half cross stitch, top right: shadow stitching, bottom left: mock leno effects and bottom right: “basket pattern”. Photo and embroidery: Viveka Hansen.

Here my attempt to reproduce four whitework embroidery styles on linen (14 threads/cm) with fine 2-ply linen thread (a type of linen thread also used for making hand-made bobbin laces). Top left: a half cross stitch, top right: shadow stitching, bottom left: mock leno effects and bottom right: “basket pattern”. Photo and embroidery: Viveka Hansen.

Close up study of two of the whitework stitching reproductions – “basket pattern” and shadow stitching. Photo and embroidery: Viveka Hansen.

Close up study of two of the whitework stitching reproductions – “basket pattern” and shadow stitching. Photo and embroidery: Viveka Hansen.

This type of strictly formed patterning was not only in use for whitework embroidery, it inspired all sorts of decorative textiles. It was particularly the case from the wealthy farmer’s areas; used for woollen embroideries, double interlocked tapestries and in embellishing many other interior fabrics. In this context one must consider that even if the origin for the whitework embroideries rooted in much earlier geometrical designs, it was further developed through various strata of society over many generations to become regional embroidery skills and local special motif combinations. These designs of their own could vary from one district to another in Skåne and even from one parish to next as late as in the mid 19th century. With other words it is possible to see slight variations in how embroidery, lacework, monograms, fringes, tassels or nets were combined and put together. Traditions, taste, available time for the work, skills, the expectations of an impressive dowry, local trade, geographical isolation, demand and supply of textile raw materials or possible influence of pattern books – such circumstances could be reasons for the development of “unique” local compositions.

My second attempt includes six variation of whitework, embroidered on the same type of linen with 14 threads/cm. Two qualities of strong linen thread (2 ply- and 3-ply) were used, to achieve the effects similar to the early 19th century embroideries made in southern Skåne. From top the stitchings are: 1. ordinary Holbein stitch, 2 & 3 variations of Holbein stitch, 4. diagonal Holbein stitch, 5 & 6. drawn-thread work “H-hålsöm” and “stoppad hålsöm”. Photo and embroidery: Viveka Hansen.

My second attempt includes six variation of whitework, embroidered on the same type of linen with 14 threads/cm. Two qualities of strong linen thread (2 ply- and 3-ply) were used, to achieve the effects similar to the early 19th century embroideries made in southern Skåne. From top the stitchings are: 1. ordinary Holbein stitch, 2 & 3 variations of Holbein stitch, 4. diagonal Holbein stitch, 5 & 6. drawn-thread work “H-hålsöm” and “stoppad hålsöm”. Photo and embroidery: Viveka Hansen.

Close up study of the two drawn-thread work techniques – the so-called “H-hålsöm” and “stoppad hålsöm” in Swedish. Photo and embroidery: Viveka Hansen.

Close up study of the two drawn-thread work techniques – the so-called “H-hålsöm” and “stoppad hålsöm” in Swedish. Photo and embroidery: Viveka Hansen.

The cutwork or so-called “stoppad hålsöm” was the most advanced and time consuming of the reproductions, even if it was one of the least demanding borders on many of the original complex drawn-thread works! One such example can be studied below on the front of a wedding shirt dating from the 1840s in Herrestads district close to the most southerly coast of Sweden.

The whitework and drawn-thread work – regularly added with similar patterns in advanced hand-made bobbin laces – adorned the household linen, but to an even greater extent linen shirts and other such garments. This skilled embroidery tradition reached its height in the 1840s in southernmost Skåne, which this shirt is a good example of. The garment was included in the publication Gammal Allmogeslöjd från Malmöhuslän printed in 1916, explained in image and text together with a extensive collection of other textile treasures. The detailed history of the garment is described as follows: ‘Owner [1916]: Ingrid Nilsson, Svinarp, Esarp parish, Bara district. Her husband, Jacob Nilsson, from Bromma parish, Herrestads district has inherited the shirt from his parents Nils Olsson and Boel Jacobsdotter, which originally had been his grandfather’s wedding shirt, Jacob Salomonsson in Bromma. It was sewn by his wife Kerstin Mårtensdotter in Bromma, who was known for her skills in making very richly patterned whitework. A large number of her exquisite work is preserved within the family’.

The whitework and drawn-thread work – regularly added with similar patterns in advanced hand-made bobbin laces – adorned the household linen, but to an even greater extent linen shirts and other such garments. This skilled embroidery tradition reached its height in the 1840s in southernmost Skåne, which this shirt is a good example of. The garment was included in the publication ‘Gammal Allmogeslöjd från Malmöhuslän’ printed in 1916, explained in image and text together with a extensive collection of other textile treasures. The detailed history of the garment is described as follows: ‘Owner [1916]: Ingrid Nilsson, Svinarp, Esarp parish, Bara district. Her husband, Jacob Nilsson, from Bromma parish, Herrestads district has inherited the shirt from his parents Nils Olsson and Boel Jacobsdotter, which originally had been his grandfather’s wedding shirt, Jacob Salomonsson in Bromma. It was sewn by his wife Kerstin Mårtensdotter in Bromma, who was known for her skills in making very richly patterned whitework. A large number of her exquisite work is preserved within the family’.

Sources. 

  • Digitalt Museum (Digital source: pillow-case, and several examples of whitework from Skåne in southernmost Sweden).
  • Gammal Allmogeslöjd från Malmöhuslän, Malmö 1916  [quote p. 141, translated from the Swedish].
  • Hansen, Viveka (Historical reproductions/embroidery).
  • Malmöhus läns Hemslöjdsförening, Ur skånska syskrin, Malmö 1968. [in Swedish only]
  • Nylén, Anna-Maja, Swedish Handcraft, Lund 1976.

PLEASE REFERENCE AS FOLLOWS:

  • Hansen, Viveka, ‘Historical Reproductions – ‘19th Century Whitework Embroidery’, TEXTILIS (July 14, 2015); http://textilis.net/ (Accessed: Day/Month/Year)