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Needlework: Once a Necessity, Now a Form of Art

Nov 09, 2010 09:14PM ● Published by Anonymous

With an Artistic Eye, an exhibit currently at the Maryland Historical Society, challenges you to ask yourself, as you view the items on display, “Is this folk art?”

According to Chief Curator Alexandra Deutsch, who selected the works and organized the installation, “For decades terms such as primitive or naïve were attached to folk art and the term folk was most often used to refer to works by women, specific ethnic groups, untrained craftspeople, and even the insane. These descriptive words for folk art have largely been abandoned and a new, more apt language for this branch of artistic expression continues to evolve.”

What attracts so many antiques collectors to folk art is that these are everyday objects that, in being crafted by a self-taught artisan, express much about the life and times of the creator. They become a piece of personal history. Not all folk art is so personal because some items were created as commercial products to sell or trade, but many items are particularly intriguing because they tell a story.

Textiles yield good examples. Two hundred years ago everything was sewn and decorated by hand. Girls began work on their linens as soon as they could sew because the enterprise took years of work.

Once the basics were completed a woman could move on to other fabric decoration, which included covers for gaming tables, panels for fire screens, workbags, pockets, christening blankets, aprons, shoes, petticoats, men’s caps, and pictures. Some of these items were made by professional needleworkers while many were made during spare hours in the home.


This embroidered mourning piece of needlework which uses the portrait card of Ethel Russell in its construction, was created sometime between 1880 and 1910. The slightly off-center placement of the urn and flowers and the contrast between the embroidery and the picture results in a very personal and unique piece of art. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society

“For centuries the women’s needlework documented their lives,” says Deutsch, “as well as provided artistic outlets for their self-expression. To me, including examples of needlework, such as samplers, mourning pieces, and quilts, were an important part of the folk art exhibition. Although these objects were created outside the realm of an academic setting, they observe many of the tenets of classical art, including proportion and color theory.”

With the Industrial Revolution a variety of brightly printed textiles became readily available. They didn’t always need added decoration. Whereas it might have taken 10 months to embroider two bed curtains, the bed curtains themselves without decoration could be made in two weeks. The time saved by using printed textiles gave young women opportunities to make other items that were not as tedious, such as silk pictures.
By the early 19th century young women were receiving more formal education than women of earlier times did, and they learned their needlework skills in schools. Yes, they learned how to make samplers, costume embroideries, and carpets, but they also made silk embroidered pictures depicting biblical and historic scenes and pastoral scenes with children dressed as shepherds and shepherdesses. They also made mourning pieces to commemorate the death of a relative, loved one, or national figure.

In the United States it was Candace Wheeler and Louis Comfort Tiffany who spread the gospel of the Arts and Crafts Movement to fellow artists, craftspeople, and designers. The result was that the American public was exposed to needlework, which emphasized individual expression along with medieval, Renaissance, and Asian styles. By the turn of the century art nouveau, which featured flowing plants, hair, and garments, became the new popular style, which was also translated into needlework.

By the 20th century skill with a hooking or embroidery needle was no longer a prerequisite for marriage. Nevertheless, many women and men continue to decorate fabric and make rugs professionally and for their own pleasure. While we often have the opportunity to view and purchase pieces of contemporary folk art of the 2lst century at regional craft shows, the exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society provides you with an opportunity to view a unique assemblage of items from the organization’s collection. Other places where you can see antique folk art include the Visionary Art Museum, also in Baltimore; the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, in Washington, D.C.; and the Abby Aldrich Folk Art Museum, in Williamsburg, Virginia.

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