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A Stitch in Time

Working with the Minnetrista Heritage Collection I have the daily fun of interacting with “old stuff.” This stuff might be someone’s baby dress from the 1890s, a favorite cereal bowl (admit it, you have one in your own kitchen), or one of the first ball jars made in Muncie. Now, I realize this might not sound all that exciting to everyone. Imagine this, however. Each of these items is a portal to a different time and place. Just like a good book, that cereal bowl may have a unique story to tell. What if that bowl held one of the first pours of a new product in 1916—Kellogg’s All Bran. Holding the bowl you could imagine how hungry stomachs were tamed. You could almost feel the crunch of the cereal in your teeth. And you might envision a family moving through their morning routine just as your family does today.

This poster, dating to the 1920s, promotes healthy eating.
Minnetrista Heritage Collection

During my first week at Minnetrista I happened upon one such magical item. While browsing through the art collection I spotted a beautiful embroidery in a gold frame. Depicting a young woman, this piece is intricately stitched in fine silk thread. Watercolor has been used to paint the face, hands, and sky.

Certainly something so masterful must have been created by a skilled needleworker. This was someone who had undoubtedly been practicing their craft for years, possibly even decades. While those assumptions seem logical, in this case they aren’t quite right. In fact, the object’s story paints an entirely different picture.

Completed in either America or England, this embroidery was worked by a skilled student.
Minnetrista Heritage Collection

The embroidery dates between 1790 and 1830—a time when female academies were growing rapidly in numbers. While it was certainly made by a skilled needleworker, she would not have been fine tuning her skills for years. The maker of this item would have been a schoolgirl, likely between the ages of ten and sixteen. Needleworks such as this one played an important part in the education of young women in the 18th and 19th centuries. Along with music, drawing, and painting, embroidery was taught as a skill. With the variety of stitches and techniques, a student would need to learn, they would then be equipped with plenty of sewing proficiency for the future.

If the thought of stitching away as an adolescent isn’t daunting enough, the process to complete a silk embroidery puts it over the top. Often the teacher, student, or an artist drew the design onto a piece of silk. The student then sewed a linen border around the edges. This border was fastened to a wooden frame to create a taut surface. Then it was time for the student to embroider . . . for days, for weeks, for months. Once finished, an artist or the teacher would usually paint the faces and background. Finally, the needlework was sent to a framer. From start to finish, it could take from six weeks to a year.

Many times the compositions were copied or inspired by printed sources. The 1802 embroidery on the left was inspired by the 1799 lithograph, on the right, titled, “The Cottage Girl.”
Collection of the Litchfield Historical Society, Litchfield, Connecticut

Often pictorial embroideries are based on an image, story, or character from popular culture or the Bible. In this case, the embroidery may depict Leonora, a character from the fiercely popular operatic melodrama The Padlock. First performed in London in 1768, the operetta opened to the public in Philadelphia the following year. It became a favorite in early republic America as well as England. It was so popular that many engravings depicting scenes and characters were produced. Additionally, music was sold and published in anthologies, newspapers, and magazines.

A 1770 engraving depicting Leonora from “The Padlock.”
Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum

This embroidery looks like no school project I had ever completed. Viewing it however, I am able to put myself in the shoes of a student two hundred years ago. Their school day would have looked vastly different than the ones I remember. The popular entertainment that inspired them did not come from television, or the top 40 radio station. Undoubtedly though, they too had days where they would have rather stayed in bed. And like school kids today, their days were filled with fun, frustration, and friends.

So the next time you are cleaning out a closet and run across some “old stuff,” take a moment and think about what that stuff can tell you. You never know, it could be just the thing to begin your journey to another time and place.