Embroidery: Southern Decorative Needlework

by Heather Palmer

"My darling child inherited a love of the needle and all its uses from my Beloved Grandmother [Martha Dandridge Custis Washington] who was, in all things, a model for her sex. (Woodlawn)"

So wrote Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis to Elizabeth Borderly Gibson in 1851. Whether through heredity or cultural environment, American women have, since the country's birth, passed on to their descendants the love of stitchery. Needlework played an especially important role in the lives of southern women in the nineteenth century. The fact that women in the South "achieved so much with their needle is a tribute to their ingenuity. It is, at the same time, a reminder that they lacked other occupations" (Lebsock 43). Nineteenth-century southern women lived closely regulated lives. Needlework was an acceptable area in which they could allow their fancies to roam and could also work to achieve perfection (Lebsock 43). Nonetheless, the scope, quality and even the nature of southern needlework have been largely unexplored, particularly in comparison to the documentation of New England needlework, as well as to the general tradition of needlework nationally.

The tradition of women's needlework as a means of creating decorative objects, of learning self-discipline and of mastering technical skills is substantial and well-documented. The first immigrants in the Spanish Southwest and the English East used their needles in the same way that they used their other tools-- to build self-sufficiency in an unsettled land. With skill and time, utilitarian tools can yield decorative results. The same knife that cuts up a whale can create scrimshaw on the bones. The needle and thread that turn a buck's skin into breeches can also fabricate a decorative curtain from a feedbag. In a somewhat reverse way, many young girls were taught how to do the necessary plain needlework by perfecting the art of fancy needlework (Grow and McGrail 25). The creation of fancy sewing samplers was sometimes the vehicle to teach plain needlework. To sew a sampler was a basic requirement for the young girls of England and other European countries from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries (Gostelow 74). Samplers taught useful sewing skills as well as patience and the need to plan ahead with regard to materials and work space. The finished work provided the luxury of decoration and also a record of stitches or patterns or techniques which could be used as reference for future works.

The Europeans who came to America in its early years sought to retain as many of the civilities of European life as possible. Religion, dress, social customs, even table manners continued as though people were still surrounded by the culture they knew rather than by untamed countryside and untutored savages. While the surroundings may have been wild, the people kept to their decorous path in the midst of it Jones 142). Indeed, if the new country were to be brought up to their standards of living, the settlers had to keep the standards very high. One of the European customs retained was the tradition of teaching girls the necessary basics of sewing through a gracious medium.

The much touted, much discussed work of Loara Standish (c. 1636) is perhaps the oldest sampler made in America. Most other famous American samplers of the period from 1640 through the nineteenth century are, like Loara's, reputed to have been made in northern colonies or states. Rarely is a sampler credited to a southern colony or, later, to a southern state. The Colonial Dames' pioneering survey of American Samplers published in 1921 reported that all but one of the seven seventeenth-century samplers they recorded were created in New England (Grow & McGrail 15). In the 1977 Directory of Where to Find Embroidery and other Textile Treasures In the U.S.A., published by the National Standards Council of American Embroiderers, entries for samplers in the North Far outweigh entries for samplers in the South.

The study of the world of sewing schools, motif travel and sewing education has also been undertaken almost exclusively in regards to northern needlework development and collections. As the conditions that underscored the social and personal importance of stitchery skills existed, perhaps to an even greater degree, in the South as well as in the North the absence of systematic documentation and examples demands an explanation.

It Was Destroyed

The easiest answer, and the one most frequently given, is that southern decorative needlework was destroyed. Sherman and other marauding, invading troops were responsible for gross destruction of private property in the South in the mid-nineteenth century. A diary entry that appears repeatedly during and in reference to the years 1860-1865 in the South is "We lost everything."[1] Even after the hostilities ceased, the defeated Southerners were penniless and unable to hang on to the necessities of life, let alone preserve bits of sewing. "Many a woman who had been accustomed to wealth knew by 1864 what it was to be hungry, homeless, and desperate for food for her children" (Lebsock 99).

The nature of the object itself led to wartime destruction by the owners. We may laugh at Margaret Mitchell's idea of Scarlett O'Hara fashioning a dress out of "Miss Ellen's portieres," but it is true, as the historian Wiley has written, that "many women transformed old garments, draperies, curtains, sheets, pillow cases, mattress covers, and even carpets into new clothing" (175). After one battle at Richmond, the town women tore up the petticoats they were wearing to make bandages; when these ran out, they went home to their cupboards to grab sheets, underclothing, skirts, shirts--anything, in fact, which was made of cotton and fairly heavy (Cunningham 231). With cloth for clothing and bandages so scarce, it is folly to suppose that a large piece of material, heirloom though it might have been, might not have been gladly scraped[2] to serve as bandages or used to reinforce a work-worn dress or a soldier's thinning uniform.

Another cause of destruction of needlework in the South is the climate. The heat and humidity of the low lying country are especially harmful to textiles. Threads of any type of cloth deteriorate. The fibers of cloth with the extra strain of applied stitches separating base threads deteriorate even more quickly. It is not unknown for a researcher to open a box the owner believes to contain nineteenth-century needlework to find nothing but a few scraps of moldering cloth.

Insects thriving in the southern climate are another threat to needlework. Roaches and silverfish, a problem in even the most spotless homes, prey upon cloth. Even at museums with approved temperature, humidity and fumigation controls, acid free boxes in clean storage cabinets may disclose a piece of nineteenth-century southern needlework supporting some half-dozen insects.

Another explanation of damage to some southern needlework is the fact that many examples are in the hands of private owners or in the care of small societies or museums without specific conservation training in the care of textile artifacts. Some examples, especially in small, unaccredited museums, are hung without covering where they can be (and are) frequently touched. These museums are doing their best to preserve and present their collections, but they often lack the funds to protect and maintain their artifacts or to hire professional curators and conservators.

An undeterminable but probably vast array of nineteenth-century southern decorative needlework has been lost by direct attack and simple neglect. The nineteenth-century decorative needlework of the North escaped much of this destruction. It was never subjected to war loss or to the ensuing need to reuse the material. The northern climate is, on the whole, more favorable to cloth goods than is the southern climate. In addition, major destruction has been averted in the North because of what Estill Curtis Pennington has called ''the New England bias of the early American antiquarian movement' (7). The National Council of American Embroiderers Directory lists a number of museums containing needle-work in each state. Massachusetts, for example, is listed as having fifty-five museums with needlework on display. South Carolina has twelve. Tiny Connecticut has thirty; Louisiana has eleven. Many samplers and other objects of northern decorated needlework early found their way into museums and thus have enjoyed better preservation than their southern counterparts, which are still largely in the loving but occasionally faulty hands of the family or the small, unaccredited museum.

Few Samplers Were Created in the South

Another explanation for the lack of southern decorative needlework known today is that there never were many samplers created in the South. The largely agrarian based settlement of the South was not conducive to the creation of samplers. Although inexpensive higher education was pioneered in the South (the first state university and the first local university in the United States were both in the South), the dominance of large agrarian areas and a scattered population led most people who desired to attend or to teach private higher education to go to the more urban North. Dramatic proof of the southern influx into the schools of the North is that with the growing fears of war some northern universities lost a large percentage of their students to the Confederate cause. Dickinson College, for example, a small, highly-rated liberal arts college in Pennsylvania had 150 students in December 1860. Only 72 students returned from Christmas break, the balance remaining near their homes in case of war. After the Battle of Fort Sumter in April of 1861, 20 of those remaining 72 students left immediately to join the Confederacy. The number of professors was reduced to four (Blodgett3).

In the North preparation for higher education was carried on at established schools (Grow and McGrail 15). In the South, however, female education was often carried on within the family (Clinton 126). Pattern motifs and school records tell us that many northern girls learned their sewing skills, not at home, but in special classes taught by a needlework teacher. This type of training was largely unavailable in the South, and there are few documented cases of sewing skills being taught to groups of girls in the nineteenth-century South.

We have seen how the climate in the South has frequently destroyed needlework; it also acted against its creation. With the occupants of a house in the North shut in by snow for as many as seven months a year, a quiet, creative occupation such as the creation of samplers must have been a delight for many. In the South, however, there was less need for lengthy indoor employment to occupy the time and hands of young girls. Active outdoor lives were available for longer periods of the year. The image of a predominately immobile southern belle who was afraid of the sun has been created largely in recent years. Period diaries and letters reveal that southern girls as well as boys learned to ride and fish, and very long walks were often a daily occurrence.[4] There was less need for recreational indoor work in the South than there was in the North.

The lifestyle and wealth of many Southerners were also competing factors against the elements which led to the creation of samplers in the North. An understanding of this fact requires an understanding of the English and European history of the sewing sampler. In Europe, decorative sewing was an entirely upper-class occupation until the late Middle Ages. Most fine sewing took place in courts such as those of the Medici in Italy and the Royal Courts in the German States and in England. As noted by Gostelow and Jones, some similarity of designs throughout Europe and England arose through the intermarriage of the ruling families. As the rising middle classes gained more leisure, they sought to copy the elegant royal embroidery, but they had no pattern books. Designs at court were passed on from generation to generation or copied from another work. How was a beginner, outside of the court circle, to learn? Perhaps originally someone at a manor or castle worked designs and stitches, one after another, on a piece of cloth, and the cloth was passed down the status ladder with all who saw it copying the designs they liked. Perhaps a few added their own variations as they mastered the techniques. In Germany and in England the Reformation touched all parts of life: all work was for the glory of God, all idleness was a wicked waste of time, and most finery was an evil vanity. Women justified their recreational sewing by turning the design "examplar" into a "sampler" which cited a religious verse. The fervently religious middle classes of Germany and England continued and expanded the samplers, and it was their descendants, both spiritual and actual, who became the religious middle-class pioneers in the North.

The South had fewer early pioneers who were either middle-class or fervent Protestants. The poor of the South were much too poor to afford the materials to create samplers or to spare the time to teach a daughter how to work the fancy stitches. The plain sewing that was to be done, such as hemming and darning, a girl learned from doing. There is little need to know how to mark linen if you never expect to own any linen (Grow & McGrail 25). Educating one's children above their social position was considered cruel as well as ridiculous.

Just as the southern poor found the art of samplers too far above them, many of the southern wealthy found it neither gracious nor useful. The wealthy certainly had no desire to use samplers as handy wall decorations. If they wanted a piece of embroidery for the wall, they sent to Belgium or to France and had a professional needlewoman make it. A planter would no sooner have allowed his daughters to decorate the parlor with their samplers than he would have seated his guests at a set of dining room chairs he had carved for his own recreation. A nineteenth-century southern woman's needlework was more likely to be used in the house in the form of rag rugs in non-public rooms and in the creation of mattresses (Clinton 24).

A southern gentleman's daughter was schooled to be more social than withdrawn. Relentless lessons[5] in the arts of reciting, dancing and music, both playing and singing, made up the bulk of a wealthy girl's home education, although reading aloud, perhaps in several languages, was also encouraged. When lack of nearby communities with their activities required families and neighbors to create their own entertainments, and when distances meant that any gathering immediately turned into a celebration, it was important that a hostess know how to delight her guests and that the guests could perform in turn.

All of this is not to say that the southern upper class did not find sewing a pretty accomplishment. In a 28 March 1787 letter to his daughter, Martha, Thomas Jefferson made the following observation: ''In the life of America there are many moments when a woman can have recourse to nothing but her needle for enjoyment. In a dull company, and in a dull weather, for instance, it is ill manners to read; it is ill manners to leave them; no card playing there among genteel people, that is abandoned to the blackguards. The needle is then a valuable source (251). Neither did the southern upper class doubt the necessity of a woman's knowing how to sew. Thomas Jefferson also advised Martha that "without knowing how to use it [the needle] herself, how can the mistress of a family direct the work of her servants?" (251).

Southern women did learn how to sew, but the majority did not learn through the tool of sampler sewing. Some samplers were made in a few families, but these do not represent the most common nineteenth-century southern decorative needlework. The assumption that samplers were the backbone of nineteenth-century creative stitchery in the South, as they were in the North, is a fallacy. The important question, then, is what did nineteenth-century southern females decorate with their needles?

19th C. Southern Decorative Needlework Has Been Overlooked

Another possible explanation for the lack of documentation of southern decorative needlework is that the majority of it has been overlooked. The types of sewing which southern women practiced relates to the religious background of the region. As was stated earlier, Southerners were not fervent puritans. Many were, however, fervent Roman Catholics. The quiet, hardworking, pious Ursuline Nuns, in particular, did much to shape the culture of the South. The Ursulines first arrived in Louisiana in 1727, and they quickly established separate free schools for Caucasian, Negro and Indian girls.

These convent schools were largely responsible, over the next hundred plus years, for many of the only group schools to which girls in the South, even non-Catholics, had access (Clinton 128). Admission records at the New Orleans Ursulines convent school show that this boarding school drew girls from all over the South. The curriculum included instruction in reading, writing, mathematics, geography, Church Latin, French and Spanish. Needlework was also taught.[6]

The Ursulines of New Orleans have set up a splendid museum at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor. This convent is still a boarding school for girls, and the museum specializes in relics of the early days of the boarding school. It is here that one is able fully to appreciate the needlework taught by the Ursulines that many of the Roman Catholic women of the South continued to practice for many years.

Although there is an occasional "examplar" in the collection, perhaps used as a pattern sheet for stitches and designs, most of the stitchery created by the girls could actually be used and were pieces needed in the church. Lavishly embroidered priests' vestments, altar accessories and kneeling stools are a part of the Roman Catholic church ceremonials. These articles were all necessary for each new church in the expanding territories of America. Clearly they could not all be brought over from Europe, so the tradition of making these needlework items was of necessity continued in America.

There are no surviving records to show how many of these items were made or to what churches they were taken, but the Ursuline nuns who currently maintain the convent and museum believe that this work, from the hands of young southern girls, spread out to Roman Catholic churches all over the South. Most of the work has, of course, been worn out or otherwise lost, but at the convent museum a few pieces have been preserved. These objects speak very well for the quality of needlework wrought by southern girls.

As the girls were sewing not with the idea of learning to mark linen but with the goal of serving God, the work is opulent and grand beyond that evidenced by any northern sampler. The materials are superb, the applied stitches almost completely cover the base fibers, and the stitches are intricately designed and executed. A surviving 1772 vestment, believed to be indicative of work created in the next hundred years, shows no cross stitches.[7] The priests' robe of silk is completely covered with flowers worked by convent students using threads of silk, spun silver and spun gold. The robe was used until l981, so some of the three-dimensional effect of the satin stitches is slightly effaced by time, but the pattern and the types of stitches are still easily traceable. Satin, couching, buttonhole and weave are the principal stitches employed,[8] and they are worked with precision and expertise.

Sewing continued to be a standard part of the girls' education at the convent. A selection of needlework objects from the mid-1700s to the present proves both that expertise did not diminish and that there was a continuity in the style of work taught and performed. This level of workmanship did not go unnoticed. In the late nineteenth century when sewing contests were at their peak in this country (Grow & McGrail 42), objects wrought by the convent girls won several national prizes. The Sisters were not insensible to this honor, and an entrance catalogue from 1888 states that while a special fee was levied that year upon musical training, there "is still" no extra charge for "instruction in plain sewing, net work, crochet-work, French embroidery, and every variety of fancy work." The girls were also informed in the brochure that they must bring with them their ''Work box or Basket, furnished with scissors, thimble, pins, needles, tape, sewing and darning thread, etc.'' (Ursuline School).[9]

A more worldly tradition practiced by the Ursuline Sisters was that of embroidering wedding handkerchiefs for their graduates. Although none of these are at the Ursuline Museum, a number have found their way into other museums in the South, including some in the Louisiana State Museum. The embroidery is worked with white silk thread on a white silk ground which is six inches square. The various designs are worked primarily in satin stitch.

Handkerchiefs were also embroidered by upper-class southern girls. Items of clothing or personal accessories seem, indeed, to have been a major decorative needlework interest of nineteenth-century southern women. Warren notes that since many wealthy Southerners were descendants of wealthy English families, it is not surprising that southern needlework bore characteristics typical of English work of that period and from that stratum. To understand fully this ornamentation of clothing and accessories, one must again recall the southern lifestyle. The hand-embroidered opera cape that graces the collection of the Louisiana State Museum tells much about the society-oriented atmosphere in the South. Its cream and white cashmere covered with a profusion of Chenille work [10] and beads was at home in the 1830s only in the city of New Orleans, where a resident made it, wore it for a season, then preserved it with a note about its history.

Most clothing decorated with needlework was not as fortunate as the opera cape, and only through diaries and letters do we know that many such pieces existed. These valuable sources reveal a decided penchant in the South for embroidering clothing. Mary Taylor's 1859 diary, for example, records that in two months she provided ten petticoats for her daughter's hope chest and that to each one she added one more row of herringbone embroidery than she had put on the petticoat before.[11] Women even embroidered the flannel nightshirts and slippers they made for their husbands. Indeed, the needles flew.

Doll clothes, always good examples of fashion, were lavishly embellished with much hand embroidery created by those for whom using a needle and thread was a new experience. Copying older family women, little girls in the nineteenth-century South busily used their needles to decorate their dolls' clothes rather than making less "useful" decorative objects.

Other objects mentioned repeatedly in surviving written documentation are household textiles and decorations. Mary Taylor--the woman who made ten petticoats in two months--also made twelve pairs of pillow cases in the next two month period, each with embroidery or insertion work and all with open hem-stitching.[12]

Other household items made in profusion during the nineteenth century were crewel work pillows, piano covers, fire screens and needlework chair and stool covers. Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis, granddaughter of Martha Washington, became obsessed in the 1840s and 1850s with finishing fourteen needlework pieces to serve as wall hangings or stool or piano covers, so that each of her surviving grandchildren would have a sample of her needlework after her death (Woodlawn).

The difference in types of decorative needlework created in the North and in the South is illustrated by entries in the National Standards Council of American Embroiderers Directory. Of the fifty-five Massachusetts museums containing needlework examples, over half contain references to samplers or needlework pictures. By contrast, of the twelve South Carolina museums containing needlework, only one has a nineteenth-century embroidered picture; none has samplers. What the South Carolina museums do contain are embroidered curtains, quilts, bed hangings, antimacassars and vestments. Only two of the eleven Louisiana museums containing needlework have embroidered pictures, and again, none lists samplers. The Louisiana museums contain wedding clothes, drapes, furnishings, doll clothes and household items. In 1938, Georgiana Harbeson wrote her now famous treatise on American needlework. Of the ninety-eight attributed items of nineteenth-century decorative needlework which appear in her listing, only seven have a southern origin: a set of chair covers, an embroidered scarf, an embroidered opera cape, an embroidered skirt, a bead work creation, a woven cap basket and a quilt urging secession.

Another type of item that appeared in southern households in the 1830s was a three-dimensional creation usually referred to as worsted work. The makers of these objects wrapped heavy woolen yarn around wire forms, then bent and stitched these forms together to create flower and fruit shapes. The creations were then displayed in a stiffened material basket which was also a needlework creation. Understandably, the survival rate of these objects is very low. Most were probably thrown out by a succeeding generations who thought the dusty objects a gaudy nuisance.

While most of the items described above were for use by the creator and her family, making needlework objects to give away was a strong tradition in the South. Hostesses and guests exchanged small favors. Even neighbors, parted only by the vast acreage of their husbands' land holdings, exchanged remembrances by courier (Clinton 8-9; Woodlawn).

The frequent utilization of small needlework gifts is one reason perforated sewing cards became popular in the South so quickly. These cards originated in Germany and England almost simultaneously during the 1830s. They were composed of bristol board with uniformly punched holes which varied from 225 to 841 holes per square inch. These boards eliminated the need to stretch, block or mount the needlework project. Books of designs colored square by square were available with the cardboard and eliminated the need for the worker even to plan her design. A floral pattern formed into initials or surrounded by a religious motto or words of friendship were the most common designs. These cardboard pieces of about two by four inches were then backed with a length of fancy silk or satin ribbon and presented as bookmarks. An example of perforated card sewing in the North is rare before 1850, and in the North the use of this material reached its zenith about 1875 (Grow & McGrail 42). The use of this material in the South, however, died out completely after the Civil War, and almost all examples date from the period of the mid-1830s to the mid-1860s.

A mid-1860 cut-off date is common to many types of decorative sewing in the South. The years immediately following the war saw a continued shortage of materials, for one thing. For another, this was a time of almost complete social upheaval in the lives of those who had been wealthy enough and had had sufficient leisure to indulge in creative stitchery in the years before the war. The old occupations, as well as the old lifestyle, were gone. Time and materials were devoted to essential sewing and repair work for clothing the family.

The problem with studying southern decorative needlework is that items were meant, in most cases, for hard and frequent use. Clothing household items and the like wear out quickly, even without taking the climate and other destructive elements into consideration. These types of objects certainly wear out more quickly than does a framed sampler. Yet, almost miraculously some nineteenth-century southern decorative needlework does exist. This fact raises the question of why so little has been written about it.

Private Ownership

A plausible explanation for the lack of published information and acknowl edged artifacts is that much of the extant nineteenth-century southern needlework is in the hands of private owners. Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis, as noted earlier, felt very strongly about creating needlework for her descendants. Hers was not a unique sentiment; the bond of family continuity and lineage is a part of the deep genealogical concern in the South. There is an old saying that, upon introduction, two southerners will not have talked for more than five minutes before they begin discussing where their grandmothers are buried. This strong historical sense and veneration of family is also evidenced by the fact that heirlooms are so highly prized. Names are extremely important in the South, too, and thus an heirloom such as a "signed" piece of needlework which includes an ancestor's name is doubly prized today. These considerations have led to most surviving southern decorative needlework's remaining in the hands of private owners, descendants of the creators. The mingling of abundant hospitality and possessive privacy is a hallmark of southern living (Clinton 176), and it is crucial to accept this before trying to find or study southern decorative needlework. Once an object is located, often by word of mouth from one owner about another, and permission to view the work is granted, the object has double value to the researcher because the owner is also often able to display genealogical charts that tell who the creator was, to give pertinent dates, and to show the lines of descent to the present owner. Most examples of nineteenth-century southern decorative needlework found by this author appear to have descended in a matriarchal pattern. There is great satisfaction in viewing the pieces within their own setting, sometimes in the same home in which they were created over one hundred years earlier. Certainly the data on creation and subsequent ownership are usually more detailed when an object has remained in family hands. These pieces are less accessible to the researcher, however, than are the many northern pieces in public collections. As a result, scholarship has been more limited. Due to the "New England bias of the early American antiquarian movement" mentioned earlier, it occasionally happens that surviving southern needlework is in northern museums. A lovely example is the sampler worked by Mary Ann Lee of Richmond, Virginia, which is at the New York Historical Society in New York City.


Dramatic, finite conclusions about nineteenth-century southern decorative needlework are impossible at this point. One can, however, come closer to understanding the work and the women who made it by a careful observation of extant artifacts and archival material and a knowledge of nineteenth-century decorative needlework in general. The spread of motifs and ideas used in nineteenth-century southern decorative needlework were not confined to the southern geographical or cultural area. There was little group schooling for young girls in the South, and thus most of the patterns which they used were taken from sewing books imported from England and the continent, as well as from il lustrations in ladies' magazines with national or international circulation.

The materials used also reflect national similarities. The Woodlawn papers include two letters which reflect origins of some stitchery materials. Charles Conrad, of New Orleans, wrote to his wife from Philadelphia in 1838 telling her that he had purchased the sewing materials which she had requested. Conversely, an unidentified Pennsylvania senator wrote to his wife during the 1830s while he was a guest at Woodlawn Plantation to tell her that he had procured her requested sewing materials in Virginia. This seems to be more an indication that ''the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence" than that either the North or the South had superior sewing materials.

A final note must be made regarding the initial question, "Where is nine teenth-century southern decorative needlework?" Four explanations have been tendered, and all four answers are true and must be taken into consideration. No one explanation tells the complete story. Some nineteenth-century southern decorative needlework was destroyed. Most did not take the form of the samplers for which many researchers often look. Many nineteenth-century southern deco rative needlework forms have, in fact, been largely overlooked because the objects ornamented were so often utilitarian as well as decorative. Finally much of the surviving work is in the hands of private owners. Much work is yet to be done in the field of nineteenth-century southern decorative needlework, and the latter explanation of why the work has been hard to find also points to continued difficulties.

Yet, there is perhaps a beauty and fitness in the difficulty of work remaining with private owners. When a butterfly is put under a microcope andpulled apart, it loses what, in essence, makes it a butterfly. Perhaps, like the butterfly, these delicate surviving expressions of personality rendered by needle and thread by nineteenth-century southern women should be treated in a less pedantic way than other areas of study. If they are properly cared for, perhaps the most fitting place for these artifacts is after all in the homes of the creators' descendants, and scholarship should take a back seat. Their position and veneration elevate these pieces of nineteenth-century southern decorative needlework so that they transcend both their purely historical and artistic value and become interwoven with the evolving life cycle of the women of the American South.


[1] See in particular the following collections of unpublished diaries and letters in the Manuscript Dept., Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, Louisiana State University Library: Bateman Collection, Douglas Papers, Kerr Documents, and the Serano/Taylor Family Papers.

[2] Cloth was literally scraped to reduce it to a fibrous mass for use in bandaging.

[3] Blodgett. Historian at Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, based her information upon several college catalogues and an unpaginated book by Charles Coleman Sellars published to coincide with an anniversary celebration of the college.

[4] See especially the following collections of unpublished diaries and letters at the Manuscript Dept., Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, Louisiana State University Library: Bateman Collection, Douglas Papers, Hamilton Papers, Hunter/Taylor Papers, Ker Documents, and Serano/Taylor Family Papers.

[5]According to the assorted unpublished correspondence on the Mount Vernon and Woodlawn Plantations in Virginia, eight hours of required musical practice a day was not uncommon. Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis's brother recalls little Nelly crying continuously during her hours of practice under the watchful eye of her grandmother Martha Dandridge Custis Washington. Despite her own childhood trauma, Nelly later forced her own daughters to take long music lessons.

[6] The information relating to the Ursuline School in New Orleans was proivided by the late Sister Columba, Historian at Our Lady of Prompt Succor Convent School and Museum, and based on archival materials in the Museum, including school records and catalogues.

[7] Th cross, or marking, stitch is made by working a line of short slanting stitches, and then working back across the row, slanting the second row of stitches in the opposite direction to form a column or row of connected "X's." This is the most common and easiest stitch used in northern samplers and is a type of counted thread work, requiring a ground fabric with large enough yarns and weave to be used as a basis for regulating the size and placement of all stitches worked upon it, at least when well executed.

[8] A satin stitch is a series of straight stitches worked next to each other, and always beginning at the same side. The effect is of a solid, slightly padded area. The satin stitch covers back as well as front of the ground fabric, and is, therefore, expensive in its use of thread. The satin stitch is worked in most instances as a free-form design rather than as a counted pattern, so the ground must be carefully marked with the pattern before work commences, and the work must be done very carefully to create the smooth outlines and lustrous surface typical of this stitch when well-worked.

There are many variations of the couching stitch, but the most common version involves a laid thread with another thread used to hold it in place at intervals. This is the type of stitch most commonly used to secure metal threads to the ground fabric. Many gold and silver threads are wrapped over a core of silk or cotton. If stitched through the backing in the regular way, the wrappings would become distorted and perhaps broken. Couching avoids this problem. and it also is very conservative of the precious metals used to make the threads, as the couched threads are all visible on the surface of the embroidery; no portion passes to the wrong side.

The basic buttonhole stitch is a continuous vertical stitch on a base line. The needle begins at the lower line, comes up on the top, and goes down again with the thread under the needle. This is pulled to form a loop, and then the entire process is repeated. It is very slow and complicated to work.

A weave stitch is only slightly more ornamental than the common darning stitch. Both involve two sets of thread angled together, but the weave stitches are not always of the same length as they are in darning.


First published in "The Southern Quarterly", Fall 1988.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Heather Palmer, has served as the Curator of three historic house museums and was also the Historian of Blair House, the President's Guest House. She lectures at colleges and publishes articles in the fields of 18th and 19th century women's lives, clothing and needlework, and in the area of material culture. She does free-lance editorial work and writing.

Read about:   Antique English Sampler Collection (C.1879-82)






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