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Upholstery And Needlework

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THE needle-worker preceded the upholsterer and ranked as of premier importance in the days when tapestry and needlework covered walls, and were used, as skins had been aforetime, to cover seats and serve as floor coverings. The upholsterer came into being when more permanent furniture and furnishings were required. As it has been stated, eastern tapestries were introduced into western countries at a very early period. The Asiatics used carpets as hangings and for covering couches and beds. They made beautiful textiles of silk and wool, with gold and silver threads overworked, such rugs being produced in Asia Minor and in Persia. Textiles and rugs were made use of in Egypt in the tenth and eleventh centuries, floral decorations being chiefly chosen. Many of the Persian tapestries are particularly interesting in that the ancient religions of Persia are symbolised in the designs ; one of the favourite types was the struggle ever going on between Good and Evil, symbolised by a fight between a lion and a bull, and sometimes by such unequal contests as a lion attacking a gazelle. Such tapestries were imported into European countries and further west until British women had learned the art of needlework and embroidery, and Flemish weavers had instructed English artisans in the art of making tapestry.


The needle-worker plied her needle to good purpose in the days before upholstery, as we understand it now, was practised. It was an art that became universal, although its interpretation varied according to the environment of its devotees, and the influences by which their artistic bent was controlled.

We have heard of Roman ladies and others teaching the fine arts to British women. Saxon embroidery has been recorded in history ; one of the first to win fame with her needle in this country was St Ethelreda, the first Abbess of Ely, who in the seventh century was remarkably clever and embroidered many beautiful fabrics. The four daughters of Edward the Elder were noted for their skill at the loom, and the wife of Cnut, the Dane, was a famous embroiderer. It is said that the lands bestowed on Earl Godric by Edward the Confessor were given conditional to his causing his daughter to be taught the art of embroidery. Of foreign ladies clever with their needles there were Judith of Bavaria, the mother of Charles the Bald, who wrought a robe for the Queen of Denmark for her baptism, A.D. 826 ; and Queen Adhelais, of tenth-century fame.

The needle-woman was an early institution in British households. In Saxon and Norman days the wives and daughters of chieftains and over-lords were kept busy in home affairs. Times change, but at almost every period the women of the household found employment in the custody of the linen press, in weaving home-made fabrics, and in plying the needle. Many of the female retainers in Saxon days were merely slaves, and in Norman times they were feudal retainers. The days of chivalry were times when noble ladies worked favours for their knights, and British women, then as in earlier times, found occupation in needlework. Some of our most beautiful tapestries were worked when the lord was away on crusades or in battle, and the women found employment in working those large pieces of tapestry which covered the rough walls of the Norman castle. The trade of the joiner and cabinet-maker was at a low ebb then. Rough and strong chests and simple trestle tables and seats were all that was needed. There were no petit point coverings required, but the needle was plied in fashioning those great pictures which have come down to us as heirlooms, and which represent the textiles of home furnishings in those far-off days. The tapestries represent battle scenes ; they indicate the lives of those stormy times, and they record incidents in connection with religious struggles and historical events. They are records of the doings of the times, and yet they are just as much furnishing textiles as the covers on chairs and couches are necessary house furnishings today.

The use of cushions came before upholstered seats. History records a famous banquet in 1507, when the then Marshal of France gave an entertainment to Louis XII. The apartment in which this reception was held was hung with tapestries of blue velvet, on which were worked fleur-de-lis and stars of gold. The ladies who had been invited to the banquet were seated on five hundred stools, which were furnished with cushions of gold and crimson velvet.

As early as the reign of Charles II. attention was concentrated upon the bed hangings and curtains and the coverings of chairs and settees in the bedroom. In considering the upholstery of these gorgeous apartments the habits and customs of the time must be taken into consideration. The bedroom was the boudoir where ladies held receptions, and their admirers assembled in the apartment where the rich textiles and products of the looms of the Huguenot silk weavers were chiefly displayed. The four-post beds with their splendid carving and their imposing size offered an especial opportunity of showing the new fabrics to the best advantage. The beds were covered with these velvet hangings ; below the cornice was a wide valance, often embroidered by hand, and its beauty enhanced by a silk tasselled fringe. Most of the bedsteads had a carved oak head, usually upholstered in silk, and even when the head board was of panelled oak it was covered with festooned or quilted silks. The curtains which surrounded the four-poster presented a wealth of embroidery, corresponding or contrasting with the rich coverlets on which were often applied velvet or bullion. It will be understood that this display of silk and velvet embroidery was indeed an attractive feature in the lady's chamber, and ladies of noble birth would vie with one another in rendering their informal reception rooms impressive.

The four-post bed, however, by no means exhausted the opportunities of textile display. There were large padded chairs and settees as well as window curtains. Quite a number of chairs so upholstered were set round the room. Narrow-backed chairs with walnut frames and needlework or velvet or silk upholstery were to be seen in the houses of the wealthy during the later days of the Stuart kings.

The Dutch influence upon furniture designs so apparent during the reign of William III. and Mary, although changing somewhat the fashion in upholstery, increased rather than diminished the use of art needlework. The examples which may be seen at Hampton Court Palace are sufficiently varied to indicate the several types in vogue. Great efforts were made to maintain home industries. At one time there were many enactments against the importation of foreign silks and velvets. Red velvet was at one time popular, many chairs dating from 1689 to 1700 being covered with it. Red and cream velvet was also used, examples of this fabric being seen on walnut chairs made between 1690 and 1695, now on view at Hampton Court. The Duke of Devonshire has many fine walnut chairs upholstered in contemporary coverings. There is a very interesting document in the Victoria and Albert Museum relating to the purchase of textiles in connection with the refurnishing of Hampton Court. The document bears the signature of the Duke of Montagu, who was then Master of the Great Wardrobe to William III. It is interesting to note in this connection that the Duke, then Earl of Montagu, was the builder of Montagu House, which constitutes the central portion of what is now the British Museum. In this interesting document referring to the purchase of textiles for the King we learn that in 1699 an order was placed for " 40 yardes of crimson Genoa velvett for two alter clothes or carpetts ; 1 large cushion, a pulpitt cloth, and desk cloth att 86s. per yard." There is also an item for " 46 yardes of crimson Genoa damask for the furniture " ; the price of this was 22s. per yard. Further purchases consisted of " 248 ozs. of crimson silk ffrindges, at 2s. 6d. per oz." It is further recorded that the " crimson broad taffaty" for the bed curtains cost 17s. per yard. There are many references to crimson rich Genoa velvet, "tufted and twisted silk fringe," and " dyed Lynnen and curled hair" to stuff the chairs with.

Reference has already been made to the needlework of the period which was chiefly petit point, or as it is sometimes called " tent stitch," which may be described as a slanting stitch of silk diagonally over a single thread of coarsely woven canvas. Although the ladies of the Court helped in making the upholstery for covering the new chairs of Hampton Court, there is no doubt that much of the needlework was done by the French Huguenots of Spitalfields. Many of the wealthier patrons of textile art in like manner supplemented the needlework wrought by the ladies of their households by purchasing the work of French artists and those who had acquired the stitch.

The passion for needleworking was very strong in the reign of William and Mary. The Queen gave an impetus, not only to the working of art needlework, but to the upholstery trade, for the needlework she and her ladies wrought was of large size design, and suited to the upholstered chairs then being made. The petit point stitch favoured by the workers provided upholsterers with a very suitable covering for the cosy chairs, couches, and easy chairs of the period. Upholsterers frequently covered new chairs with a slip covering of silk, which, although not very lasting, served until the needlework was ready to replace or cover it.

It is difficult to describe or to classify the designs worked in petit point or tapestry. Some represented figures which might be better understood then than they are now. They indicated rural scenes and palace intrigues. Some were even classic in design ; others were floral, and flowers and fruit in many ways were conspicuous ; and again some were scenic. The backs of walnut settees in the closing years of the seventeenth century were covered with what is called verdue tapestry, which in vivid colours gives us pictures of English parks and Tudor mansions. There are forest scenes and there are village festivals. Then, later, there were the more formal patterns in which a stiff and conventional group of flowers or foliage occupied the whole of a chair back. Oftentimes the remainder of the material without any reference to the design was used up for the seat and for the arms.


We are apt to overlook the importance of the upholsterer's craft which gradually took in hand the work of adding comfort if not additional ornamentation to furniture. The craft, like many of the old English occupations, was subject to the control of guilds, who supervised work done, kept it up to a proper standard, and provided for the continuance of the craft in work-manlike manner by a sufficiency of apprentices.

The spinster spun and the weaver wove textiles long before the upholsterer came upon the scene. Indeed, the Worshipful Company of Upholders was not heard of until the reign of Edward VI., when they received a grant of arms from the king. Their haunts were in the neighbourhood of Cornhill, their early occupation being that of trafficking in old clothes, old armour, and beds. As times changed the upholder, apparently resourceful, developed. These wily traders made use of every opportunity to secure rich furnishings, and in the days of the Stuart kings gave much attention to covering the hitherto plain seats of chairs and providing cushions of a more permanent kind.

Kindred guilds found the materials for the " Upholders." Of the Guild of Tapissers Chaucer wrote :

" An haberdasher and a carpenter,
A webbe, a deyer, and a tapisere,
Were alley clothes in a livere
Of a solempne and grete fraternitie."

Another derivation of the origin of the household upholster, who was not engaged in the trade of the guild members is drawn from the upholder who held office in great households as the special custodian of the arras and tapestry. He was an important member of the staff, and as times changed became the family upholsterer.

During the fifteenth century, and the first few years of the sixteenth century, silks, satins, velvets, muslins, tapestries, and woollens were used in house - furnishing. Taffeta was made in Western Barchester, in 1560, and Flemish weavers were at work in Kent soon afterwards. An important advance was made in English tapestry weaving when the Mortlake factories were founded in 1619 by Sir Francis Crane under the patronage of James I. During the Stuart times velvets and silks were also used for upholstery. The silk trade had received great impetus when the Huguenot weavers settled in London. The tapestry weavers began to make lighter hangings for curtains which came into use towards the end of the seventeenth century. Of these a writer wrote in 1688: " There is a tapestry company which would furnish pretty hangings for all the parlours of the middle classes and for the bed-chambers of the higher."


It is certain that the greatest achievement of the upholsterer of former days was found in the state bed and its hangings. The bedroom received the greatest attention, and some of the choicest treasures of needle-work were to be found in olden time in my lady's chamber. Shakespeare tells us Imogen's bed-chamber was hung with tapestry of silver and silk. Rich silks and embroideries came over from oriental countries in the days of Elizabeth. Counterpanes for state beds were embroidered in India and Persia ; some were painted in colours, enhancing the effect of the golden embroideries of the embroiderers.

The extravagance of royal upholsteries can be gauged by the expenditure on the state beds in the palaces. For that bed " hung " by Charles II. for his Queen at Hampton Court the upholsteries, according to Evelyn, cost 8,000. But that extravagance paled before that of the French King who prepared a gorgeous bed for Marie Antoinette. That indeed was a costly piece of furniture, the embroideries of pearls and other rare materials bringing up the total cost of the bed to 131,820 livres. Incidentally, upon the death of that ill-fated queen the French Government spent upon her coffin only 7 francs !

The upholsterer hung the four-posters of Stuart and even later days with rich hangings, and made embroidered coverlets. Curtains were deemed indispensable ; "Under the curtains" was a common expression for " in bed" ; and a " curtain lecture" was a phrase not unknown in Charles Dickens's day, for he wrote of Mr Caudle's misfortunes and of a lecture he could not avoid.

We are apt to look upon the luxuries of Elizabethan days as entirely confined to the wealthy. That does not appear to have been the case, for Harrison, writing in reference to the comfort of English homes at that time, says : " The use of costly furniture has descended even into the inferior artificers, and many farmers who have learned to garnish their joyned beds with tapestrie and silk hangings, whereas our fathers, yea and we ourselves, have lain full oft upon straw pallets . . . and a good round log for a pillow."

In the Verney Letters mention is made of an unusual bed made for a widow, the hangings of which were all of black. This bed, made in 1638, was truly a sad sight, for all the room hangings as well as those of the bed were black. The outfit included thirteen pieces of " blacke clothe hanginges, three yardes deepe and foure and a halfe yardes longe, and two others three yardes deepe and three yardes longe."

The Elizabethan period is a landmark in upholstery, in that it was then that fixed upholstery made its appearance. Previous to that time loose " quysshons " (cushions) had been used. With the newer style rare fabrics were sought, and there was much demand for the products of the looms of Genoa and Venice. Then came English embroidery, and afterwards printed chintzes and ornamental fabrics, many of the latter being used as temporary coverings until the petit point needlework was ready to replace them.

Some of these old materials are to be found upon the chairs for which they were originally made ; one of the finest collections of richly upholstered old furniture is at Knole Park, where there is so much Jacobean carving. The collection of textiles belonging to the Earl of Dalkeith includes many interesting pieces, among them tapestry table covers finished between 1689 and 1705, quilted green silk covers with wadded applique design in coloured silks, embroidered with the monogram E.C.M. (Elizabeth Cavendish Montagu), worked towards the close of the seventeenth century ; and curtains of woollen rep made with an embroidered pattern of stems done in coloured silks, about the second half of the seventeenth century.


One of the most enthusiastic specialists on old English chintzes is Mr F. W. Phillips, of the Manor House, Hitchin, who in the charming little booklet descriptive of these old - world upholsteries says: "It is difficult to write dispassionately of old English chintzes, so soft is their touch, so delicate their faded colours, and so enchanting is the old-world scent ever clinging to them, that one's tendency is to overlook their technical faults and praise them unreservedly." It is with such feelings as those that the home connoisseur regards the faded fabrics that once made the living-room and the bed-chamber so homelike.

So beautiful and appropriate were those old Georgian chintzes that efforts have been made to reproduce them by modern processes, and very successfully has this been done. The collection at Hitchin includes many examples of these delightful prints stamped by hand with boxwood blocks by the " calico printer," whose apprentice mixed the colours for his use. Very beautiful are some of the colour prints representing Chinese taste. Those designs in which the pheasant and the peacock figure are reminiscent of the exotic birds upon Worcester and Chelsea porcelain. Mr Phillips tells of the Toiles de Jouy which, he says, may be regarded as " engravings upon cloth." They originated at Jouy in the Valley of Bievre near Versailles, and were subsequently made at Old Ford in England. Some of these latter include charming rustic scenes, many being signed by the names of the artists who worked upon them. Such old chintzes were especially suitable for bed hangings and wall panelling, as well as for curtains and coverings of chairs. They were made from the close of the reign of Queen Anne until nearly the end of the eighteenth century. The earlier examples of English chintzes were better than those made in France at the same time. But French art advanced, and towards the close of the century excelled that of this country. There is a peculiar charm about such old fabrics, and when the collector is able to secure genuine antiques he is advised to do so when restoring an antique room or rehanging an ancient bed. Failing that, the pleasing reproductions procured by Mr Phillips are good substitutes.

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