Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Historical Embroidered Faces

Back to business here!  I shall be making a new video soon, this time on a Celtic Knots.  Immediately after, that I’m going to finish off the ‘3-d Corded Detached Buttonhole PDF file’ I mentioned a couple of posts ago.

For now though:  I noticed some draft posts I had lined -up that were in danger of being overlooked due to the (dear) book.  This is one of them. 


Last time I visited the Ashmolean Museum I saw among other things, 2 wonderful embroidered faces, one was from the elaborate Casket pictured below, and the other was from a giant needlepoint ‘tapestry’ piece, that I discuss briefly at the end of this post. 

Added to which, after my goose-bumpy visit to Witney Antiques, I was considering stitching a little face myself.  I haven’t had the chance yet to try it, but this post includes a picture of a ‘stitching pattern’ of one of these faces, for when I do manage to ‘clear my decks’.

Casket Faces

As we all know, these magnificent embroidered Caskets were sold in kit form, (probably door-to-door) by salesmen who could also supply the materials needed to complete them. 

This particular Casket, on display at the Ashmolean, has an emotive note regarding its provenance accompanying it.  The note was found in the box by the original owners and is more than a little sad as it explains some important historical background behind the scarcity of these boxes.


The transcript of the note says:

‘The Cabinet was made by my Mother’s Grandmother who was educated at Hackney School after the plague in London all the young ladies works were –burnt- destroyed that they were about at that time.  She left school soon after, therefore this was made before 1665.’

(The word ‘burnt’ is struck through on the Museum note.)

Conjecture on Possible Construction Methods of Faces


Seen lit from above in this way, we can really tell just how dimensional the lady’s little padded face is. 

Her forehead protrudes further out than the cheek bones and is realistically dome-shaped, even though she has unusually wide eyebrows. 

Notice how well formed her  cute nose is.  It too protrudes, even though its highest point is actually a little off-centre. 

See how taut her ‘fabric’ complexion is.  To my mind, their method of working meant that the stitches used to define the facial features are not only descriptive but functional too, as they are used to ‘mould’ the shape.

The really interesting parallel I was able to make recently, was just how much this female figure resembles a period doll.  In fact, an Elizabethan doll described as being in “remarkable condition” popped up  in an episode of  the ‘Antiques Road show’ that I saw last year.   Apart from the similar treatment of the facial features and their proportions, I noticed also, that the little wooden hands were finished on the toy dolls exactly as they are in miniature form, on these Stumpwork Casket figures.

Pattern and Stitch Plan

Below you can see I have made a careful drawing from an image in the catalogue (sold worldwide) from Witneys exhibition.  This Queen’s face appears on a embroidered mirror.  

As a drawing, it looks a little strange and that is because its actually a drawing of the stitching used on this particular textile face.

I think the ‘pattern’ is clear enough to translate back into stitching, as I have counted the stitches as precisely as I can with the aid of my magnifier. 

I suppose you could say its a kind of ‘dot-to-dot’ of stitching, if you will, in that all the small vertical lines are where your couching and/or quilting stitches should go. 

The interesting thing about this sketch is that you can clearly see, she was stitched away from the main fabric and added as a kind of ‘slip’, subsequently. 

Notice how the edge of the figure has a finely couched white cord running round it, that is secured with very small perpendicular couching stitches. 

As I noted from peering at slips on display at The V&A, the cord has a dual purpose in this instance.  Firstly it would conceal any frayed threads that could poke out plus it would provide a much-needed firm base with which to stretch the piece into place, as you stitch.  

It goes without saying that this idea, in all likelihood would work far better than simply grabbing a tiny hem and pulling it about.  After all, they wanted their stitching to last.   In fact, I have since learnt that the idea of reinforcing hems in this way, was a working method that was possibly carried down from Saxon times (?), when they would finish off all their hems with fine braids, to reinforce them against wear.    

stumpwork stitch diagram

Of course, stitched faces are utterly dependent on the convincing treatment given to eyes, so all eyes have to be especially large. 

stumpwork face close up

If we take an even closer look at the eye socket area from another piece of historical embroidery (found in another Witney catalogue) that I made a drawing of, you can see the path they would have taken with their tiny quilting stitches. 

Eye quilting stitches

The Curious Case of Ink Lines Left Unworked

Going back to the royal face, in the picture below, you’ll  see, I’ve deliberately used black marker to identify the ink lines that remain visible on the embroidered mirror.  In my personal view, you can perhaps tell from this, that they deliberately left key ink lines ‘unfinished’. 

Those areas are:

  • the side of her nose
  • her eyebrows
  • her lower lip and
  • the finer, framing curls of hair

It may just be conjecture but, I now think this was, in all probability a deliberate decision (?).

It could be that black silk was known to disintegrate and was very expensive or ‘troublesome’ in some other way?

Also, it could be that the whole thing just looks better with certain areas defined in black ink?

My personal view is that they were deliberately left as unworked inked areas for emphasis, rather like under-drawing in a painting, to help define key features, especially when viewed from a distance e.g. hung on a wall. 

under drawing


Needlepoint Faces

In contrast, here is a close up of another lady’s face that appears in the centre of a large needlepoint ‘tapestry’ from Spain c.1625, titled ‘A Musical Party’, that also hangs in the Ashmolean. 

I have included it here because interestingly it incorporates stem stitch for its outlining.  (See earlier post where historical outlining is discussed.)


On the subject of stitched hair, would you just look at this!


Needlepoint hair is a total feast for the eyes and this example from the same artefact is breathtaking. 

Now, it wouldn’t be fair to talk exclusively about faces, so let’s give a little time to the Continental treatment of the flowers on this piece.  Again, see how they stem stitched the outline on those as well.   


This ‘workshop piece’ is positively huge and hangs wall-to-wall, alongside 2 other tapestries ‘proper’ from Holland. 

My notebook for that day says:

Outlining in brown stem stitch, sometimes split stitch, sometimes whipped running stitch.


Comments welcome !


Must dash ppl !


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