Arts and Crafts Essays/Of Modern Embroidery
OF MODERN EMBROIDERY
IF we wish to arrive at a true estimate of the value of modern embroidery, we must examine the work being sold in the fancy-work shops, illustrated in ladies' newspapers or embroidered in the drawing-rooms of to-day, and consider in what respect it differs from the old work such as that exhibited in the South Kensington Museum.
The old embroidery and the modern differ widely—in design, in colour, and in material; nor would any one deny that a very large proportion of modern work is greatly inferior to that of past times.
What, then, are the special characteristics of the design of the present day?
Modern design is frequently very naturalistic, and seems rather to seek after a life-like rendering of the object to be embroidered than the decoration of the material to be ornamented.
Then again it may be noted that modern designs are often ill adapted to the requirements of embroidery. This is probably because many of the people who design for embroidery do not understand it. Very often a design that has been made for this purpose would have been better suited to a wall paper, a panel of tiles, or a woven pattern. The designer should either be also an embroiderer or have studied the subject so thoroughly as to be able to direct the worker, for the design should be drawn in relation to the colours and stitches in which it is to be carried out.
The more, indeed, people will study the fine designs of the past, and compare with them the designs of the art-needlework of the present, the more they will realise that, where the former is rich, dignified, and restrained, obedient to law in every curve and line, the latter is florid, careless, weak, and ignores law. And how finished that old embroidery was, and how full! No grudging of the time or the labour spent either on design or needlework; no scamping; no mere outlining. Border within border we often see, and all the space within covered up to the edges and into the corners. Contrast with this very much of our modern work. Let us take as an example one piece that was on view this summer at a well-known place in London where embroidery is sold. It is merely a type of many others in many other places. This was a threefold screen made of dark red-brown velveteen. All over it ran diagonal crossing lines coarsely worked in light silk, to imitate a wire trellis, with occasional upright supports worked in brown wool, imitating knotty sticks. Up one side of this trellis climbed a scrambling mass of white clematis; one spray wandering along the top fell a little way down the other side. Thus a good part of the screen was bare of embroidery, except for the trellis. Naturalism could not go much farther, design is almost absent, and the result is feeble and devoid of beauty.
If we turn now to material, we shall find that embroidery, like some other arts, depends much for its excellence on the minor crafts which provide it with material; and these crafts supplied it with better material in former times than they do now. A stuff to be used as a ground for embroidery should have endless capacities for wear. This was a quality eminently possessed by hand-spun and hand-woven linen, which, with its rounded and separate thread, and the creamy tint of its partial bleaching, made an ideal ground for embroidery. Or if silk were preferred, the silks of past centuries were at once thick, firm, soft and pure, quite free from the dress or artificial thickening, by whose aid a silk nowadays tries to look rich when it is not. The oatmeal cloth, diagonal cloth, cotton-backed satin, velveteen and plush, so much used now, are very inferior materials as grounds for needlework to the hand-loom linens and silks on which so large a part of the old embroidery remaining to us was worked. And so very much of the beauty of the embroidery depends on the appropriateness of the material. Cloth, serge, and plush are not appropriate; embroidery never looks half so well on them as on silk and linen.
It is equally important that the thread, whether of silk, wool, flax, or metal, should be pure and as well made as it can be, and, if dyed, dyed with colours that will stand light and washing. Most of the silk, wool, and flax thread sold for embroidery is not as good as it should be. The filoselles and crewels very soon get worn away from the surface of the material they are worked on. The crewels are made of too soft a wool, and are not twisted tight enough, and the filoselles, not being made of pure silk, should never be used at all, pretty and soft though their effect undoubtedly is while fresh. Though every imaginable shade of colour can be produced by modern dyers, the craft seems to have been better understood by the dyers of times not very long past, who, though they may not have been able to produce so many shades, could dye colours which would wash and did not quickly fade, or when they faded merely lost some colour, instead of changing colour, as so many modern dyes do. The old embroidery is worked with purer and fewer colours; now all kinds of dull intermediate tints are used of gold, brown, olive, and the like, which generally fade rapidly and will not wash. Many people, admiring old embroidery and desiring to make their new work look like it at least in colour, will use tints as faint and delicate as the faded old colours, forgetting that in a few years their work will be almost colourless. It is wiser to use strong good colours, for a little fading does not spoil but really improves them.
So we see that many things combine to render embroidery as fine as that of the past difficult of production, and there is nothing more against it than machinery, which floods the market with its cheap imitations, so that an embroidered dress is no longer the choice and rare production it once was; the machine-made imitation is so common and so cheap that a refined taste, sick of the vulgarity of the imitation, cares little even for the reality, and seeks refuge in an unornamented plainness. The handworked embroidery glorified and gave value to the material it was worked on. The machine-work cannot lift it above the commonplace. When will people understand that the more ornament is slow and difficult of production, the more we appreciate it when we have got it; that it is because we know that the thought of a human brain and the skill of a human hand went into every stroke of a chisel, every touch of a brush, or every stitch placed by the needle, that we admire, enjoy, and wonder at the statue, the picture, or the needlework that is the result of that patience and that skill; and that we do not care about the ornament at all, and that it becomes lifeless always, and often vulgar, when it has been made at little or no cost by a machine which is ready at any moment to produce any quantity more of the same thing? All ornament and pattern was once produced by hand only, therefore it was always rare and costly and was valued accordingly. Fashions did not change quickly. It was worth while to embroider a garment beautifully, for it would be worn for years, for a lifetime perhaps; and the elaborately worked counterpane would cover the bed in the guest-chamber for more than one generation.
These remarks must be understood to apply to the ordinary fancy-work and so-called "art-needlework" of the present day. Twenty years ago there would have been no ray of light in the depths to which the art of embroidery had fallen. Now for some years steady and successful efforts have been made by a few people to produce once more works worthy of the past glories of the art. They have proved to us that designers can design and that women can execute fine embroidery, but their productions are but as a drop in the ocean of inferior and valueless work.
Mary E. Turner.
- But cf. "Of Materials," p. 365.