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Antique Embroidery: Turkey Work
( Article orginally published October 1959 )
Much can be learned of Colonial ways and days from the meticulously detailed household inventories kept by early comers to this country. Cooking utensils, furniture, clothing, linens, table appointments were included along with tools and kindred objects. Many of the items are familiar today. Others, particularly in the range of textiles and embroideries have passed into disuse, and their very names are alien to present-day vocabularies.
Such an almost forgotten term is "Turkey Work", yet from 16th century England to the 1850s in America it appeared in countless inventories, describing rugs, wall hangings, covers for chairs and sofas, and throws for tables and chests.
This work, which falls into the category of embroidery, was made in imitation of the costly Oriental carpets woven with a knotted pile in such countries as Persia and Turkeyhence, no doubt, its name. Copying the techniques of Oriental rug makers, early English and Continental needlewomen tied, rather than wove, their Turkey Work patterns, drawing the wool through a foundation cloth of heavy mesh, and using the "ghiordes" knot when rugs with heavy pile were desired, or the "sehna" knot for lighter weight pieces.
Early patterns were somewhat uniform, but as workers learned to sketch their own designs, patterns showed more individuality and were seldom alike. Oriental motifs, with full black outline, were most usually adapted. Chairs covered with Turkey Work were frequently embellished with fancy gimps, fringes, and tassels.
Before imports of wool were available from Germany, Americans used mainly English lamb's wool. worsteds, and crewels from England for their embroideries. The name "worsted" derives from the town of that name in Norfolk, England, where the manufacture of woolen yarn and thread was introduced during the reign of Edward III in the 14th century. The terms "Worsted Work" and "Turkey Work", particularly in rural areas, were often used interchangeably. In city newspapers, expert workers advertised to teach the art, and furnish materials "at nominal sums".
A "Turkie rugg" was fashioned by Mollie Stark of Vermont, the wife of General John Stark of Revolutionary War fame, for their daughter Polly on her marriage in the 1770s. The foundation of this rug consisted of an old blanket, and the colored wool was pulled through the meshes by means of a simple hook. This rug may now be seen in the rooms of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Washington, D. C.
The rich colors of Oriental carpets, made of vegetable extractions by secret formula, were attempted, too, in Turkey Work, with dyes concocted from the madder plant, from dried bodies of cochineals, from indigo, saffron, and sumac plants, gall nuts and onion skins, berries, and the barks of various trees.
With the advent of the power-carpet loom, invented by Erastus Brigham in 1839, the popularity of Turkey Work and, indeed, the need for handmade rugs yielded to manufactured carpet. Simpler hooked or braided rugs made from left-over woolens, soon became the only handmade floor coverings in the home.
Turkey Work was attractive, durable, and highly regarded by early settlers who listed it proudly among their possessions. It is an art which might happily be revived as pleasant "home work" for today's craftsmen.