What Those ‘Richly Embroidered Wall-hangings’ In Your Fantasy Novel Really Mean.

(March 2016 – this post has been updated with new links to press articles on the discovery of some original Jacobean bed hangings in a Scottish castle – scroll to the bottom if you’re checking back)

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.

Jacobean rabbit

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.

March 2016 – I’m updating this post with links to articles on the fantastic discovery of a set of Jacobean bed hangings found tucked away in a linen store in Dunollie House, Oban, during the restoration of a derelict Scottish castle. Yes, really!

The story from The Scotsman and some fantastic pictures

From the Oban Times, with close up photos and information on restoration and display plans

Author: Juliet

Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels so far. Her debut, The Thief’s Gamble, began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, followed by The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. The Green Man’s Heir was her first modern fantasy inspired by British folklore in 2018, and The Green Man’s Quarry in 2023 is the sixth title in this ongoing series. Her 2023 novel The Cleaving is a female-centred retelling of the story of King Arthur, while her shorter stories include forays into dark fantasy, steampunk and science fiction. She promotes SF&Fantasy by reviewing, by blogging on book trade issues, attending conventions and teaching creative writing. She has served as a judge for major genre awards. As J M Alvey, she has written historical murder mysteries set in ancient Greece.

17 thoughts on “What Those ‘Richly Embroidered Wall-hangings’ In Your Fantasy Novel Really Mean.

  1. First off, that’s a nice piece of embroidery you’re doing! Crewel work isn’t something I’ve experimented with much yet (I’m more of a crossstitcher, lace knitter, and sewing-random-scraps-into-usable-objects person myself), but it’s a style I’d like to learn at some point.

    Second, wonderful points made about the length of time it takes to make all these awesome things that are usually treated pretty casually in fantasy novels.

    Third, I think that a lot of wealth can still be measured by how much of a person’s time you can buy. I work as a travel counselor for a credit card company, dedicated to their penultimate tier of card, so all these rich people (minimum confirmed income needs to be $200k a year just to apply for the card, I believe) have a dedicated travel department just for their use. The ultimate tier has yet another one. Sure, they can make their travel arrangements online because it’s a heck of a lot quicker. They could call the hotels themselves to book a stay, but it’s a mark of wealth that they give their wants to personal assistants, who call us, and we arrange things with the hotel through a 3rd-party booking system. It may not be as conspicious now as it was in the past, but the same measures still exist today.

    1. Thanks, and also, thanks for this current example of the money=time equation. As with so much, details may change but a lot of underlying principles remain the same!

  2. You do lovely work!

    I traipsed over to the Royal School of Needlework website yesterday and drooled over the courses. But I don’t think I’ll be able to travel to Britain again.

    Not only did someone have to do the needlework, someone had to spin the thread and weave the fabric, and those fine weaves are time sinks. I think of it every time I look at embroidery from the Chinese empire, King Louis XIV’s days, etc.

    I’ll stick with quilting. It’s slow enough!

  3. Quite so! And then the jacquard loom and machine lace and other such things changed so much of this – for good and ill. What were once luxuries were accessible to the masses – and what had been a valuable side-industry and means of earning hard currency, especially for women, vanished like mist in the morning.

    The Industrial Revolution wasn’t just about steam engines and heavy industry!

  4. Two of my favorite books on the subject are _Women’s Work: the first 20,000 Years_, Barber; archaeology and anthropology and research-weaving. For a long time fiber work was about the only portable, lasting, tradeable store of labor.

    And, for those of use who can’t get to the RSN or any stately homes, _Early 20th Century Embroidery Techniques_, Marsh; not really a how-to, but the photos are detailed enough to get going if you’re experimental. And we know enough about the 20th c work to know how much work it was, and whether it paid. Beautiful pictures, and I love the balance between high art and high craft.

  5. Would they only have been done by one person at a time? I’ve seen large embroideries being done in India and Myanmar and other places, and a big piece is usually stretched on a frame and worked on by several people simultaneously. It goes quite fast, especially if the embroiderers are practiced. So the number of woman-hours would still be high but the actual time taken would not be that much per person to complete the whole thing and get paid.

    1. Quite so. Something the RSN teaches is starting and finishing a thread from the front of the work, on the assumption that a group of women will be working on a large piece of work together, so flipping it or reaching underneath would be impractical. This is how they work when they’re restoring/replacing historic textiles for the palaces, etc.

      And the Plimouth Jacket Project info mentions embroidery workshops, with experienced needlewomen working alongside apprentices, which is also how the RSN still works on commissions.

  6. It wasn’t just Anglo-Saxon women who devoted a huge chunk of their work hours to textiles. To read early literature is to enter a world in which any woman whose hands aren’t otherwise occupied is likely to be engaged in spinning or other textile work. Odysseus’ wife Penelope works at her loom every day. Queens and their ladies sit spinning by the fireside. Goddesses of the old pantheons spin and weave and embroider. On a homelier level, the first workday after the end of Yuletide was referred to as St. Distaff’s Day, i.e. the day on which festivities were over and women went back to spinning. People who journeyed on foot would knit as they walked.

    Luxury textiles were status markers. A display of skilled decorative needlework was a boast that your wife and daughters weren’t obliged to spend their time on more utilitarian items. Fine embroidery and lacemaking were a technology for concentrating and displaying the labor of those beneath you. This was especially true of lacemaking, which is almost universally associated with the labor of well-behaved supernumerary females.

    Scale: A really good lace-edged Elizabethan ruff represented about a year of one person’s full-time work.

    I love fine needlework and lacework. They’re climax technologies and legitimate artistic media. I think anyone who loves them should be able to own some, and that this shouldn’t involve an underclass of skilled laborers who are paid a pittance. This is why I love modern technology and the prospect of desktop fabrication: it has the potential to break the long association between lavish needlework, female disempowerment, and social injustice.

    1. Indeed, and I’d much rather live in a world where those of us who like to work on such things as leisure projects can – and those who really don’t, aren’t forced to do so, for whatever financial/social/other reason.

      I was at a museum with some excellent exhibits on Georgian life last year, where two samplers by little girls aged 10 and 12, if I recall correctly, were on display. Studying the pieces closely, it was easy to see which was of the two had enjoyed doing it (or just been more biddable) judging by her neat and even work from start to finish, and which lass had got progressively more and more slapdash as she went on – too young, not deft-handed, just not interested, who knows? But the storyteller in me imagined her being scolded and browbeaten and winced for her…

      I’ve never attempted lace – just watching experts at work with pillow and bobbins leaves me breathless with awe.

      I’ve never heard of St Distaff’s day – thanks for that!

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