How talented are you? That’s a question young ladies of good family had to consider when they were about to make their debuts in nineteenth century England. The ability to make good conversation, play an instrument, acquit herself well on horseback, and perhaps manage a household were supposedly prized traits for gentlemen looking to acquire a wife. But there was another more important practical skill, for ladies of any social strata: the ability to sew a fine hand.
Though wealthier ladies were more likely to have someone else like a maid or seamstress mend their clothes (or throw damaged items away entirely in the most spendthrift households), a wife who could reattach a button, hem up a skirt, or take portions of outfits and repurpose them was generally to be commended. Then too, many a young lady fell to embroidering seat covers, nightgowns, and other items she would need for her trousseau. Even older ladies were known to embroider to pass the time.
The basic stiches, such as the chain stitch, blanket stitch, satin stitch, and cross stitch were the same then as we know today. The thread might be fine silk or warm wool. Designers sold patterns, but some ladies made up their own. And some of the workmanship was exquisite, as in this apron made from silk.
Nor were English ladies alone in their accomplishments. Some of the most beautiful embroidery from the nineteenth century can be found in items from India. Kent State University Museum has a muslin dress embroidered with iridescent beetle wings (not the shape of the wings--the actual wings!). Their “details” collection on Pinterest has some lovely examples.
According to the Victoria and Albert Museum, which has a wonderful online display about embroidery, the designer William Morris played a large role in making English embroidery even more popular in the mid-1800s. That's one of his designs at the right. His patronage led to the establishment of the Royal School of Art Needlework, which produced and sold embroidery and designs as well as trained students.
Me? Well, I have embroidered a few pillow cases and table runners in my time, but I would certainly not rank stitching among my accomplishments. What about you?