OCULAR PROOF?

The latest strip. Unusual because of the columns:

clarke-30.jpg

Angelique asks when this type of needlework was popular. I respond that double running stitch came into vogue in the early 1500s, and continued to be worn for the next 130 years or so, although the actual designs worked in the stitch changed over that period. The strips I’m doing now are late, mostly adapted from a photo of a sampler, and that sampler is dated to the late 1500s, early 1600s. Which would put it at Shakespeare’s time and just after.

So. Does my favorite style of needlework appear in Shakespeare? Possibly. People have looked to his texts and found all manner of things that might or might not be there, but I have a feeling that double-sided counted work of this type did make an important cameo.

My case? Othello.

As those of you who know the play remember, Othello is swayed to believe in his wife’s supposed infidelity by scheming Iago, who points to a particular handkerchief as proof. Othello had given the piece to Desdemona. It was filched by her lady in waiting (Iago’s wife) and planted as manufactured evidence that Desdemona was having an affair with Cassio, Othello’s trusted favorite whom Iago envies and despises. The play’s central tragedy results.

The handkerchief is mentioned in a couple of places. It’s in Act 3, Scene 3:

IAGO

Nay, but be wise: yet we see nothing done;
She may be honest yet. Tell me but this,
Have you not sometimes seen a handkerchief
Spotted with strawberries in your wife’s hand?

OTHELLO

I gave her such a one; ’twas my first gift.

IAGO

I know not that; but such a handkerchief –
I am sure it was your wife’s–did I to-day
See Cassio wipe his beard with.

And is described further in Act 3, Scene 4:

OTHELLO

That is a fault.
That handkerchief
Did an Egyptian to my mother give;
She was a charmer, and could almost read
The thoughts of people: she told her, while
she kept it,
‘Twould make her amiable and subdue my father
Entirely to her love, but if she lost it
Or made gift of it, my father’s eye
Should hold her loathed and his spirits should hunt
After new fancies: she, dying, gave it me;
And bid me, when my fate would have me wive,
To give it her. I did so: and take heed on’t;
Make it a darling like your precious eye;
To lose’t or give’t away were such perdition
As nothing else could match.

DESDEMONA

Is’t possible?

OTHELLO

‘Tis true: there’s magic in the web of it:
A sibyl, that had number’d in the world
The sun to course two hundred compasses,
In her prophetic fury sew’d the work;
The worms were hallow’d that did breed the silk;
And it was dyed in mummy which the skilful
Conserved of maidens’ hearts.

Later in the same Act: Cassio comes upon the handkerchief and gives it to his doxy Bianca:

CASSIO

Pardon me, Bianca:
I have this while with leaden thoughts been press’d:
But I shall, in a more continuate time,
Strike off this score of absence. Sweet Bianca,

Giving her DESDEMONA’s handkerchief
Take me this work out.

BIANCA

O Cassio, whence came this?
This is some token from a newer friend:
To the felt absence now I feel a cause:
Is’t come to this? Well, well.

CASSIO

Go to, woman!
Throw your vile guesses in the devil’s teeth,
From whence you have them. You are jealous now
That this is from some mistress, some remembrance:
No, in good troth, Bianca.

BIANCA

Why, whose is it?

CASSIO

I know not, sweet: I found it in my chamber.
I like the work well: ere it be demanded–
As like enough it will–I’d have it copied:
Take it, and do’t; and leave me for this time.

So allowing me the license used by many Shakespeare pretenders, what we’ve got here is a handkerchief – essentially a two-sided piece work, embroidered with strawberries. There’s an allusion to the embroidery being a deep crimson silk (“the dyed with mummyconserved of maidens’ hearts”), although Lord alone knows whether or not mummy was actually used as a dyestuff, and if it was, what color it might have produced or abetted. We’ve got a link between the work and a mysterious Egyptian/Moorish origin. It’s worth noting that the name for double running stitch at the time of the plays debut was “Spanish Stitch,” and it was wildly fashionable and popular. Plus it’s clear that whatever type of embroidery it was, it was easily copied.

Taken together – reversible, red (along with black, one of the most fashionable colors for Spanish Stitch), stitched in silk, easily copied, link with Moorish origins – that’s my style!

If the local amateur troop ever decides to stage Othello, I think I’ll volunteer to stitch the handkerchief. And I plan on doing a strawberry panel on the current sampler, for good measure.


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