As regular readers know, I like to embroider. I do canvas work and cross-stitch and thanks to an inspired idea by my sister, I’ve been learning Jacobean crewel work, courtesy of family and friends clubbing together to buy me birthday-gift-certificates for Royal School of Needlework courses at Hampton Court Palace. I’d like to show you what I was working on last weekend, not by way of an ego-trip* but to show you what nine hours of such stitchery looks like.
Yes, nine hours and as you will see, even this smallish design isn’t complete as yet. Granted, I’m still relatively new to this style of work. On the other hand, the tutor did remark I was making good progress.
Now let’s look at this. It’s a printed fabric but in very much the sort of design that crewel work was used for – embroidering with wool on linen twill – making curtains, wall-hangings, fire-screens and other decorative furnishings to brighten up – and insulate – homes in days of yore.
For scale, those humming birds are about the same size as the flower in that first picture. If they’re too small to make out, click on the picture for a larger view. So just imagine how many woman-hours of stitching would be involved in say, making a set of bed curtains, canopy and valances decorated like that. Even assuming a practised needlewoman could work say, twice as fast as me. Even if that flower represented five hours’ effort, the labour involved is considerable.
This is what wealth meant, in the days before Ferraris and Rolexes. A significant measure of wealth was the ability to buy other people’s time and endeavour. You can see this in other day-to-day things historically. Dark fabrics with rich colours required multiple dye processes, so they were more expensive. High-status food like jelly/jello took a lot of time-consuming preparation and skill, starting with boiling up calves’ feet for hours at a time. This premium on personal labour has some consequences we might not expect today. When clockwork roasting spits came in, they were convenient but they weren’t a must-have item for the wealthy. It was more of a mark of status that you could employ a servant to manually turn your spit and roast your meat with personal care and attention.
And let’s not forget that you need good light for doing work like this embroidery; either natural daylight, which means whoever’s doing it needs decent glass windows which are costly, or expensive beeswax candles.
I know I’ll be looking at embroidered textiles in National Trust stately homes and castles with a whole new level of insight now. I’ll also be thinking carefully before blithely decorating any fantasy homes with those richly embroidered wall hangings.
*As a general rule, I am averse posting ‘look at me, aren’t I cool?’ stuff. ‘Read my books, they are cool,’ is an entirely different matter.