Learning to Embellish

Learning to Embellish

Learning to Embellish Introduction

Makers of embellished objects learn techniques in a variety of ways.  Some acquire skill in a formal educational setting.  Some are taught by family or friends.  Books and magazines provide the necessary instruction for many others.  An adventurous person, however, might educate herself by trial and error or experimentation. 


The reason why people learn to embellish is also varied.  The need to express oneself creatively can be a strong motivation.  Carrying on a cultural or family tradition is another compelling reason.  Some people acquire specific skills as a means to make a living, while others are simply expected to learn.


Parson's SamplerLearning to Embellish in Childhood

Learning to embellish with needle and thread, for instance, was an important aspect of education for late 18th and early 19th centuries young American girls.  The necessary skills were sometimes taught by a mother, grandmother, aunt or older sister.  Families that could afford it sent their young daughters to female academies where the “curriculum” would include–sometimes exclusively–instruction on creating items by hand.  Plain and fancy sewing were routinely taught.  Plain sewing included garment construction, mending and 'marking' with cross-stitched names or embroidered initials to identify the owner.  Fancy sewing entailed ornamental embroidery, drawn work and related techniques.  


Fancy needlework, as we will see, is only one type of learned embellishment generally classified as “school girl arts” from the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Learning to Embroider Samplers

Some of the oldest surviving examples of “school girl arts” are needlework samplers worked by very young girls.  The embroidered samplers from the American Colonial period are based on long, European versions with short rows of various stitches and patterns. 


Later American versions changed to a square of linen embroidered with cotton, linen or silk thread.  Alphabets, numbers, pictorial elements, ornamental borders, and sometimes mottos or biblical passages filled the compositions.  Many included the maker’s name and age, as well as the date and place of execution, particularly if completed at one of the female academies. 


These samplers were used as tools to teach young girls embroidery skills, but also assisted them in learning the fundamentals of reading and writing.  Samplers made in Illinois are rare since their popularity declined shortly after the state entered the Union in 1818.  Many, however, many made their way to Illinois when families relocated and brought these cherished family heirlooms.


In this sampler, nine-year-old Sarah Parsons demonstrates her achievement in cross and satin stitches but has inverted or left out certain letters of the alphabet.  Spaces between embroidered areas were traditionally left unworked in samplers, but this background is covered by wide rows of vertical satin stitches in light-colored, crinkled silk thread.  This background technique and unusual thread suggests it was made in or around Essex County, Massachusetts, where needlework teachers favored this technique.

Learning to Paint a Theorem

Stiles' Theorem PaintingRespectable young ladies of the early 19th century were expected to achieve certain “accomplishments.”  The ability to make suitable home adornments was one requirement.  Skill in painting images was highly prized, but not everyone demonstrated natural ability. 


This is an example of theorem painting, a technique taught to help develop painting skills.  Theorems often used stencils to paint some of the larger shapes.  The pre-cut stencils helped to maintain the correct proportion between elements of the painting.  The maker then added details with a brush.  Bowls of fruit and vases of flowers were popular subjects. This is a work on paper, but theorems were commonly painted on white or cream velvet cloth.


The dominant element in Hannah Stiles’ painting is a large pineapple, the symbol of hospitality.  The theorem was possibly created as a gift for a schoolmate or family member.  Her misspelled French title suggest the young girl was learning a foreign language–another “accomplishment.” 

Learning to Stencil Textiles

Haskins' Stenciled BedcoverYoung women were also taught to use stencils for larger projects.  Although they could be purchased, stencils were often manually prepared by cutting out shapes from a coated, stiff paper.  The technique required a separate stencil for each color element of the design.  The maker applied the paint through cut openings and, when dry, repeated the technique with different stencils and paints.  


The process required skill and patience to avoid errors in proper registration of the overlays.  Stenciling was a popular and inexpensive way to decorate the late 18th through mid-19th century northeast American home.  Virtually any surface could be, and was, embellished with this technique: walls, floors, furniture, and even textiles.


Haskins' Stencils

Haskins' Stenciled BacksplashThe Illinois State Museum’s three-piece bedroom ensemble, c. 1830-50, is a fine and rare example of stenciled textiles.  A member of the Haskins family–early settlers in the Belvidere, Illinois, area–created the bed coverlet, backsplash, and coordinating washstand mat with the stenciled initials “L.H.”  A wash stand with a water pitcher and basin was a common bedroom fixture before the advent of indoor plumbing. 


An embellished backsplash was often crafted and hung from a horizontal bar behind the pitcher and basin.  The decorative fabric provided color and protected the wall from water damage.  The Haskins backsplash borrows motifs from the other two pieces and uses popular colors of the era: brownish-red, yellow-green, navy blue, and gold.  The backsplash also depicts the American bald eagle, a motif often found in home arts after its adoption as a national emblem in 1789. 


Haskins' Stenciled MatStenciled textiles of this period were generally made in areas along the East Coast.  Because the Haskins family relocated to Illinois from the East, it is possible these objects were made in New England and brought to the new location.  Stenciled  bed covers are fairly scarce among museum collections, but the Haskins ensemble is even rarer, suspected as being the only three-piece set known to exist intact. 

Learning Penmanship

Off-hand FlourishThe art of beautiful penmanship has all but disappeared with the computer age.  Text messages and e-mails now replace the elegant script practiced in the 19th century by both women and men.  Schoolmates filled each other’s autograph books with names, greetings and mottos in their best penmanship.  Skillfully crafted letters were the primary means of long-distance communication.  Businesses, too, made all their transactions by hand. Clerks repeatedly dipped pen nibs into ink wells to record each number and word.


Elegant script was sometimes paired with decorative line drawings in ink.  These fanciful images were known as off-hand flourishes.  Birds and other animals were popular subjects.   The main image was surrounded by scrolling lines of various thicknesses that enlivened the subject and caused it to vibrate.  The art of making off-hand flourishes was usually learned in a formal educational setting and taught in both art and business courses.   Men were the primary makers of these ornamental drawings.


This off-hand flourish depicts two birds perched on either side of a nest filled with eggs and supported by two long feathers.  The back shows an unsuccessful and abandoned first attempt at the composition.  Fred Lueben, its maker,  developed his skill while attending the North West Business College (now North Central College) in Naperville, Illinois.  Lueben favored birds for his flourishes and routinely used them to adorn business documents.

Learning by Reading

Dainty WorkThe Victorian era (1837-1901) was responsible for increased interest in embellishing the home with hand-made objects.  Mainstream publications responded by featuring sections on “fancy work.”  By the end of the 19th century, entire books and periodicals were devoted to instruction on household adornments.  Women across the United States acquired easy and inexpensive access to learning embellishment techniques.


Home ArtSeveral of these publications originated in Illinois.  Chicago area author Addie E. Heron (1854–1918) wrote Dainty Work for Pleasure and Profit as a guide for creating soft furnishings and other home arts.   Her book was published in several editions between 1890 and 1914 with the alternate titles Ladies’ Work for Pleasure and Profit and Fancy Work for Pleasure and Profit.  Heron provided encouragement along with instruction in her substantial book:


Home Craft"And now, dear reader, right here let me say a few words directly and individually to you. Do not wait to build a fine residence before you begin to make a home, in the only sense in which the word should ever be used. Do not let your children grow up amid uncouth and unlovely surroundings, while you are waiting for the dollars to grow. Remember, the young will seek for beauty elsewhere, if it is denied them at home... Now, do not say you cannot afford it; you can afford it, because it is one of the necessities and not a luxury of life."


Art in CrochetHeron also edited the Home Art magazine, proclaiming itself “the authority on fancy work.”  This and other magazines offered a forum to request specific patterns or answer questions on technique.   Around the turn of the century, many of Chicago’s women’s magazines published special supplements devoted specifically to needlework.