[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.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)