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Although the art of embroidery was practised very many centuries ago, the collector is unlikely to be able to acquire much that was made prior to about 1650. Pieces of earlier date are extremely rare; not only are the majority of them preserved carefully in cathedrals, churches and museums, but understandably time has taken its toll.
English work of the Middle Ages was famous throughout Europe, and the remaining examples show how justly its admiration was earned. The work most likely to attract the collector is the type that was popular in the mid-seventeenth century, and known for no explicable reason as stumpwork. It consists of embroidery on a panel of silk (usually white) in coloured silks with some of the principal features padded out, and often having human figures with carved wood heads, hands and feet. This type of work was made in the form of pictures, for covering the frames of mirrors, and for covering boxes; the latter usually fitted with numerous small drawers (some of them `secret'), a mirror, and lined with pink paper bordered with silver tape.
Straightforward tent-stitch embroidery worked on a canvas backing, dating from the seventeenth century onwards, was stitched in both wool and silk, and occasionally with threads of gold and silver. Much of it has been preserved during the past 250 years, and a proportion retains much of its original brilliant colouring. By reason ofits attractive appearance and its durability it is not surprising that this type of work continues to be done today. Eighteenth-century furniture with its original (or contemporary) hand-worked covering is, of course, rare, but the value of a piece is increased greatly by its presence.
In the third quarter of the eighteenth century there was a vogue for pictures, square, oblong, round and oval, worked in coloured silks on a silk background; the latter often embellished with touches of water-colour. Most of these have faded, others are found to have backgrounds rotted with age and neglect, but perfect examples may sometimes be found and are very decorative. Subjects varied from imitations of the patterns on Chinese porcelain to renderings of willowy ladies weeping at the tomb of Shakespeare, or at that of Werther following the publication of Goethe's Sorrows of Werther in 1774. A lady named Mary Linwood of Leicester, achieved fame towards the end of the eighteenth century by working elaborate embroidery pictures, mostly imitating well-known paintings, sixty-four of which she exhibited in London for many years.
The familiar sampler began as a reference panel of patterns and stitches, but by the eighteenth century it had become an exercise for children. They were embroidered with the letters of the alphabet, mottoes, verses, texts, and the date of execution together with the name of the worker. Late in the century the making of maps became popular. These were drawn in outline on silk, and the whole, including county boundaries and names, then stitched carefully in appropriate colours.
In the nineteenth century there was a fashion for working brilliantly coloured pictures in wool; many were after famous paintings, but the greater number were of Biblical subjects. They are known as Berlin woolwork, for both patterns and materials were prepared and exported from Prussia. They were sewn with thick wool and in big stitches, many were of large size and must have taken a considerable time to finish.
Beadwork is allied to embroidery, and was used on its own as well as in conjunction with work in wool and silk. It was widely popular in the seventeenth century, and revived during the reign of Queen Victoria when it was used often for making banners for firescreens and panels for covering footstools.
In other parts of Europe styles similar to those of England were followed, but with local variations in both designs and materials. Similarly, in America the inhabitants followed the styles that they, or their forbears, had followed before they reached that land. Much of the work is indistinguishable from European, but samplers exist with names of individuals and cities that make their identification certain.
Chinese embroiderers favoured silk, which they had in the first place introduced into the West, of which the production was pursued with zeal. Fine embroidery was used on robes, in many instances on both sides of the fabric with the thread-ends care fully concealed. It was used also with great effect in the form of pictures. Similar work was done by the Japanese.