The Embroiderer's Story

Getting Settled to Stitch

March 28th, 2008 by Tricia

workroom.JPGYesterday I started a photo journal of a typical day in the life of our sessions. Here we continue on the day. After going over the instructions and as new stitchers are getting their doodle cloths finished, Wendy or I do a ‘highly scientific’ process of looking at the doodles, checking the pieces the stitcher sent in, and going over the frames to see what needs to be done. We are looking for a comfortable match for that person. Often we will start someone on a full motif like a bud or peapod worked only in silk. What I find particularly funny is that the more advanced the stitcher is, the more nervous she usually is about starting on the jacket – afraid she will ‘screw it up’. Conversely, if we start one of the interns on the jacket – they will do anything we ask happily as they have no reference point to know that ‘this is supposed to be hard’.

Usually this is the point that I pull out a deck of photos I have printed for this purpose. We have to remind ourselves of the conditions that the jacket was originally made in before we judge our skills too harshly and rob ourselves of the pleasure of working on this project.

Close your eyes and put yourself in the past. A room full of mostly men over a spectrum of ages. Young teenagers that were apprenticed to older masters and just learning. They would start with simpler tasks, maybe twisting silk for an embroiderer, maybe working a simple motif. These were children who may not have completed a sampler when they were young as their female peers did expecting a life of domestic embroidery. They would have been prepared by maybe learning to read and write before being apprenticed to a trade. Referring to Patricia Wardle’s article on Edmund Harrison, Embroiderer to the King, we find information on the apprentice structure circa 1611 and onwards. These apprentices were bound for eight years to ‘serve the aforesaid party in all fidelity and diligence and to learn embroidery, in return for which he, the aforesaid party, should enjoy, apart from instruction, board, lodging, clothing and those things pertaining to these…’

Edmund Harrison was the son of a merchant taylor and was sent to school at nine years old to learn the catechism and read and write. From records, it appeared that he was apprenticed around 14 years old into the embroidery trade. By 27 he was known as the King’s Embroiderer and ran a workshop with more embroiderers and apprentices. So it is likely that our jacket was stitched by a combination of 14 year old boys and those older and more skilled. Think about the teenage boys you know. Mind blowing, isn’t it.

Armed with that knowledge, I show the nervous stitcher my deck of photos. They are close ups of a different and very beautiful jacket. I have seven different carnations all printed at the same scale. When you look at them you see that one very skilled person stitched the flower with miniscule detached buttonhole stitches. Then you see that the calyx on each flower was stitched by different people, each with crude larger stitches and none of them match. Then I point out the worms next to several of the flowers. That’s when the ‘ah ha’ moment is. The worms look like something we all did when we were five. Most likely we are seeing the progression of early apprentice, skilled apprentice and masters all in one photo. Yet the jacket itself in its entirety is breathtaking. That’s when our stitchers relax and settle in.

Don’t be afraid to join us! And while you are at it, bring your favorite teenager with you. We’ll apprentice them too!


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2 Responses to “Getting Settled to Stitch”

  1. MarthaD says:

    Any chance you could post the pictures you are referring to in this post? Those of us at the earlier stitching sessions haven’t had a chance to see them!

  2. Tricia WIlson Nguyen says:


    I would dearly love to post photos! But alas as we can hardly afford to run the project – we can’t afford the licensing to post pictures of museum embroideries on the web. We have had around 35,000 visitors this year to this page and it would cost us several thousand dollars for each photo. I hope when we put out a book, we will find the funds through grants to publish a fraction of the photos we need to support the research. I might try to do a topic on ‘why there aren’t more pretty pictures of embroideries ‘ out there on the internet or in books sometime for the blog.


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