Where was String last week? At a conference! This was a new experience for me. I’m pretty much a lone-wolf stitcher. I don’t belong to guilds or stitching circles, and have no local pals who pursue this stuff. I toodle along on my own, with a couple web-pals and chat boards for company, and have persisted this way for decades. So it was a huge departure for me to splurge on attending the Winterthur Needlework Conference With Cunning Needle: Four Centuries of Embroidery.

First off, I was amazed that so many people were there. I expected maybe 100, tops. But there were many more, possibly as many as 600+(doing the math on the rows of chairs at the big lectures). It was a big treat to be surrounded by so many knowledgeable and enthusiastic folks!

Here’s my report. I hesitate to post pix, not being sure if “private research use” covers blog use. Also apologies for massive blocks of text. Feel free to skip this and head off to eye candy elsewhere. I won’t be offended. Oh. And I didn’t take notes, opting instead to concentrate on the presentations. The summary below is from memory. Apologies if I get the details wrong. If you were there, please feel free to correct me or add on.

Day One:

The first two lectures focused on the Faith Plimouth Jacket. The first one was by Dr. Tricia Wilson Nguyen and the second by Jill Hall – the two leaders of the Plimouth Plantation jacket re-creation project. Fascinating. Together they presented a general overview, but not a content free skim over the top. All parsed in terms of the socioeconomic context of the world in which the jacket was produced. Which sounds dull, but wasn’t. Why were the English embroidery styles used on the jacket largely detached? Why were the gold and silver laces and spangle of the period so sketchily done? Why did the jackets disappear from the historical record so quickly? Why were the techniques represented in the jackets used? What was the purpose of wardrobe pieces like this, and how did that purpose persist in the face of changing styles?

Wilson opined that in part the creation and popularity of these sumptuous jackets has to do with the lack of an English banking system in late Tudor, Stuart and Cromwell eras. We wandered off into regulations of the gold thread drawing industry, the economics of frippery (second hand clothing), the apprenticeship system, thread production and use patterns, and the time/thread consumed by competing techniques. In short, these were rapid production pieces, made by workshops, valued as much (if not more) as walking bank accounts – the detached embroidery, lace and spangles could be snipped off and melted down – cashed in against need, in the days before reliable deposit accounts existed. When deposit banking became more stable and wealth could be more safely kept, the jackets (and I’m betting some other forms of household plate and ornament) fell out favor.

Another major takeaway from Wilson’s talk was the prevalence of marled threads. You now all those subtle color to color transitions? The stitching ateliers and private embroiderers did not maintain massive stocks of zillion shade increment threads. Instead they used a smaller number of colors, but custom split and twisted stitching lengths on an as-needed basis, often blending colors to achieve “in-between” color values. The silks did not come pre-spun in ready-to-stitch skeins. Silks came in raw reeled but dyed hanks, tightly twisted into almost baton like lengths. The stitchers would tease out the requisite fibers, and twist up just the length they needed, plying colors as needed. This technique is also used in historical and contemporary Japanese embroidery. In addition to the marled colors, you can see evidence for custom split and twisted thread on samplers made by beginning embroiderers, who were not yet skilled enough to produce lengths of uniform thickness.

Some of Hall’s main takeaways were the shaping nature of bodies (corsets) worn under garments like the jacket, and how knowing of their presence can make sense of (to we unbound moderns) posture, movement, and actions shown in historical art pieces. She went more into jacket shapes and construction, showing variants. She also explained how silhouettes changed over time and how even with changing fashions (and creative ways to wear them), the jackets maintained their presence.

The 2+ hours of lectures flew by so quickly I didn’t notice how dense pack the morning was until it both were over.

After lunch there were two more lectures – Old London to New London: Tracing Needlework Patterns and Skills in Early America by Susan Schoelwar and Artful Adornments; Embroidered Accessories of Boston Schoolgirls by Pam Parmal, curator of textiles at the MFA, Boston.

The first talk centered on several styles and object classes common to Eastern Connecticut valley in the early to mid 1700s – showing how this rather insular frontier community (which it was back then) produced several identifiable clusters of work that can be related via formal schooling (needlework teachers and pattern drawers) or via familial relationships. The second discussed what Boston area schoolgirls were embroidering other than samplers, especially what older girls boarding with teachers were up to. I would have preferred more pix of the latter rather than descriptions or household inventories, but both lectures were engaging and well-delivered, and quite informative.

After lunch I went to a workshop on the Sarah Collins sampler, led by Joanne Harvey. She also put the piece into a social context, tracing the lineage of other contemporary 1600s American samplers, both through points of origin and ownership/lineage. Then she reviewed double running stitch for those who had never done it before, and for the folk who had – presented a variant of four sided stitch done both horizontally and on the diagonal. This variant produces diamonds on the reverse when the stitch is done on the diagonal. I hadn’t done that before.

My main take-away from the whole day is that no artifact can be examined out of context. That context can be economic, didactic, familial or any other set of circumstances, but all aspects play in every piece. Examine a stitched item on only one vector (say craftsmanship) and you miss a wealth of associations that reveal greater import to the piece than mere beauty. Even though that beauty may be what attracted attention in the first place.

Day Two:

A very long day, indeed.

The morning lectures started with a talk from Karen Hearn, the curator of 16th and 17th century art at the Tate museum in the UK. Her topic was embroidery depicted in period portraits. She presented a range of pictures from the gallery’s collection, and discussed whether or not portraiture can be used as a reliable resource for period needlework investigations.

The verdict was “not very.” All sorts of things intervene. First there can be a huge shift in colors, due to pigment color migration over time. She showed some blues that were vivid azure when new, that are now a totally unrelated beer-bottle brown. Other complications include artists that were more or less skilled in needlework depiction or who had varying levels of interest in rendering needlework with stitch accuracy (some pix are flat out representational and not literal). This could have been a product of whether or not the artist had access to the textile independent of the sitter (increases veracity). I can imagine that some sitters may not have actually worn all of the clothing pieces in which they are depicted at the same time. Some may have taken all their best, wearing it all at once for their sitting. Others may have been painted with family items or accouterments, in an effort to look richer or more influential than they really were. Takeaway from this lecture is “view all with grain of salt.”

The second talk was William Kentish Barnes – the master gold thread maker who supplied the jacket project. He spoke on the history and methods of his craft. While an engaging anecdotal speaker, he had rather more content and enthusiasm than public speaking experience and ran out of time before his talk finished. Still, it was interesting, if rather rambling. His main point is that motive power (human, animal, steam, electricity) may have changed, but the physical production of drawn wire threads remained stable until the invention of plating via electrolysis; and there’s nothing in the 1600s that we can’t make now, given demand to spark manufacture. He hinted quite broadly that if the stitchers in the audience wanted quality, historically accurate materials, that demand would suffice.

After break the third speaker was a PhD student, Nicole Belolan with a talk from her amusingly named thesis, The Blood of Murdered Time. Her talk explored Berlin woolwork (19th century needlepoint). Now Berlin is long maligned as a debased, populist craft. Although widely practiced, it had the same disparaged reputation in its time as plastic canvas tissue box holders have today. Belolan put it in social context, and looked at it through the experiences of a woman invalid, who although isolated through illness, maintained a long-distance social life and community via pattern sharing and gift exchanges with friends and family. I’m not likely to run out and stitch a sentimental spaniel among the posies, but Belolan did do a good job of showing the value of this populist style, and the populist, accessible appeal that it had at the time.

The last talk was by Dr. Lynn Hulse Archivist of the Royal School of Needlework. She spoke about the late 19th century revival of Jacobean-inspired crewel work, largely fostered by the Royal School of Needlework and some famous practitioners, most notably, Lady Julia Carew. Imagine one of today’s E! or gossip page luminaries, but highly talented at needlework, setting a style through personal production and sponsorship. With prodigious personal output including an entire room full of floor to ceiling panels, plus dozens of pieces of furniture and smaller pieces. Very interesting, and laudable – a product of the arts and crafts movement for sure. A very interesting talk about a very interesting woman. I’ll be looking for more info on Lady Carew.

After lunch I had selected two tours instead of sit-down workshops.

The first was a session in the rare book rooms of the Winterthur library (which is largely accessible on-line). No 1600s era modelbooks, but lots of slightly later works, plus 1600s era emblem and natural history works – both used for needlework inspiration.

The high point of the entire weekend came for me in the second half of the library tour, when we went down into the room to view ephemerata (really old non-book stuff, like pamphlets, scrapbooks, pattern pages, snippets, and broadsides). There, in an assembled book of textile fragments, awaiting restoration/mounting was an actual piece of 1600s era Italian voided work, done in red silk on linen. Exactly the style that I research and graph. It was done on around 50+count linen. While the pattern was rather more like some of the ones I used on my last piece, it had a squared background, exactly like the strip I am working now. I was able to see both front and back. There were knots! And the background was identical front and back – NOT in four sided stitch with little x’s on the reverse. I was THRILLED, I’d never been up close and personal with an exact representation of the stuff I’ve been graphing! We WERE able to take pix in the library, so I have photos of this piece. I intend to write to Winterthur and ask permission to include a chart for this unpublished work in TNCM2.

After that the second tour I took was rather anticlimactic. Which is strange to say for specialty a needlework tour of the Winterthur estate, of artifacts, interiors, textiles, and furnishings collected by the Dupont family. Samplers by the dozens. 1700s era, 1800s era. Some famous, some not. Mourning pictures, armorial pages, allegorical scenes. Fishing ladies. Hand-stitched and heirloom knotted rugs. Bed hangings. Quilts. Pinballs and etuis. Purses, pockets and pocketbooks. Clothing. Household linens. Stitching and knitting tools. After touring the on-display rooms, we went to the back stacks and looked at the off-display collections. More than any one human could process in the two hour tour. I now have stitching overload – SO many images running together in the brain that I can’t form a clear description of any one.


My big gains from the weekend are the importance of studying artifacts in context – knowing why and how they were produced, and for what purpose. That historical linens were rather gauzy compared to modern ground cloth of the same count. That historical pieces aren’t beyond the technical skill level and reach of modern stitchers, although the time investment may be on a greater scale than most of us can easily invest.

I learned that experiences like the Winterthur conference are extremely valuable – full of learning opportunities both in and out of the lectures. If you get a chance to attend something like it, and can manage to attend, by all means, do so! That there are lots more people pursuing the needle arts with serious scholarship and intent than on-line presence indicates, and the electricity of gathering them together is very special.

I also came away with a ton of contacts. Special hellos to the gang from Calontir, Jeanne, Ria, Janet, Sharon and all the other people who took time to chat with me. Apologies if I’ve left names out – I’m better at content and faces than names. I’m astounded that folk in the real world know of my book. Totally shocked in fact that almost everyone I mentioned the book to, owned a copy. Never having done book tours, nor having received any reports of sales, I had no idea…

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4 responses

  1. Thank you so much for sharing about this trip. I would have loved to have gone, but it was simply too far away for my current budget to allow. So this was wonderful getting to read about it through your eyes. 🙂

  2. Ditto from me. You also clearly reach a wider audience than you are aware of – keep up the good work!

  3. It was great to meet you. Glad you brought your very distinctive ‘business card’ :). And it was an overwhelming weekend, had a case of sensory overload by the time we left. Catherine/Liriel, one of the Calontir contingent :).

  4. Kimberly Servello | Reply

    Hi Kim,
    We had breakfast together on Saturday morning at the hotel. I just went on line to find out if John Crowley’s book, ‘Little, Big’ was available on audio and I thought of you, so decided to search for your website again. It was great to meet you, my stitching friends are going to be so jealous when I tell them! Don’t forget about Crowley’s book! Here’s a review by the Guardian that caught my eye:

    One of the most underrated classics of recent yearsLittle, Big is one of those sprawling, dreamlike fantasy novels that has very British sensibilities but, paradoxically, it takes the Americans to do really well.Guardian (London)

    I hope you enjoy it,
    my embroidery blog:

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