Sew What?

Sew What? Season 2: The Tiny Needleworked Treasures of 17th-Century Schoolgirls

February 04, 2021 Isabella Rosner Season 2 Episode 1
Sew What?
Sew What? Season 2: The Tiny Needleworked Treasures of 17th-Century Schoolgirls
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Sew What?
Sew What? Season 2: The Tiny Needleworked Treasures of 17th-Century Schoolgirls
Feb 04, 2021 Season 2 Episode 1
Isabella Rosner

Sew What? is back with season 2! In this first episode of the season, Isabella explores minuscule needleworked objects made by 17th-century British schoolgirls, such as tiny purses, bite sized birds, embroidered eggshells, and decorated nutmegs. 

As always, images and sources are available at @sewwhatpodcast on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The podcast has a new website, sewwhatpodcast.com, and a Patreon, patreon.com/sewwhatpodcast. 

Show Notes Transcript

Sew What? is back with season 2! In this first episode of the season, Isabella explores minuscule needleworked objects made by 17th-century British schoolgirls, such as tiny purses, bite sized birds, embroidered eggshells, and decorated nutmegs. 

As always, images and sources are available at @sewwhatpodcast on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The podcast has a new website, sewwhatpodcast.com, and a Patreon, patreon.com/sewwhatpodcast. 

Whatsup stitches!! Sew What is back!! I’ve missed you all very much even though I don’t actually see your faces and sometimes feel like I’m speaking into the void but I know I’m not because you all are wonderful and very kind!! Anyway, hello. I hope that, if you’re a Sew What listener who listens every week, that you had a really delightful three months since season 1 ended in October. And I also hope that, if you’re listening to this weeks or months or years later, you’ve also had a nice past three months! It’s 2021, so new year, new us. Or something. But most important of all, new year, new needlework! What a time to be alive!!!

Now that we’re all here at the beginning of season 2 of the pod, lemme tell you all about this season! There will be episodes about Indian embroidery and nalbinding and Wiener Werkstatte and 20th century weaving and hooked rugs and hairwork and so much good stuff. And there’ll be interviews with major museum curators and contemporary artists and scholars and researchers and I’m not gonna reveal any names yet but trust me when I say there are some BIG ONES coming. Such fun!! And, as always, images and sources will be posted every week on the Sew What Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, @sewwhatpodcast. But wait, there’s more!! The pod now has a website and a Patreon! The website has all the images and sources and the ten most recent episodes, as well as a way to contact me with any thoughts or ideas or questions or concerns or whatever. The website is sewwhatpodcast.com! Yay!! And the Patreon is so you can support the making of this podcast, if you want. It’s at Patreon.com/sewwhatpodcast and as you’ll see, there are three ways to support and supporting gives you exclusive access to stuff. And if you’re not into or able to support the pod monetarily that is SO fine, it’s just there if you want to because running a podcast is expensive it turns out. So yes, sewwhatpodcast.com and patreon.com/sewwhatpodcast. For both of those websites, there’s no question mark or anything. Just the phrase “sew what podcast.” So much exciting new stuff!! What a joy!! And now, let’s get into the actual episode, shall we?  

I was going to start off this season by talking about British orphan needlework, talking about the samplers and miniature clothing they made, but thought I didn’t want to start this season off on a grim note, so instead this episode will be about the wonderfully teeny tiny needlework of 17th-century British schoolgirls. And when I say teeny tiny, I mean it. Quite a few surviving cabinets and caskets from the time entered museum collections or antique dealerships or wherever else with these tiny objects inside of them. I talked about cabinets and caskets in depth in an episode last season, but as a reminder, cabinets and caskets were boxes usually embroidered by girls at the end of their needlework education and used to store precious objects like letters, writing supplies, gems, perfumes, and other treasured items. So the objects I’m talking about today had to fit into these boxes, which were basically the size of shoe boxes and each of those embroidered boxes had many of the tiny objects within them so what I’m saying is the objects are SMALL. But what objects will I be talking about today? The umbrella term teeny tiny 17th-century British needlework is a bit vague, right? Yes, it is. Basically, I’ll be taking you all on a rousing tour through a bunch of stuff. 

I’ll start off with the objects found in Martha Edlin’s needlework casket, which I have mentioned on the pod before and which I will inevitably mention many more times. After that, I’ll be looking at the trends of miniature needleworked renditions of objects like bellows, birds, and sheaves of wheat. British schoolgirls were making lil needleworked versions of everything. It’s wild. Then I’ll shift to objects that are still small but really focused on luxury and extravagance and needlessly embellishing or utilising expensive or delicate materials to show off one’s wealth AND embroidery skills. The two types of objects I have in mind when I say that are embroidered nutmegs and embroidered EGGS. Yes, I know you’re thinking, “What the heck??” and truly, I am too. It’s gonna get fun and just plain weird, which I am excited for. I’ll end the episode in a brief foray into a type of object that’s not embroidered, but that’s similar to the other objects discussed in its truly tiny size and its connection to luxury and wealth and that object is deerskin gloves stored in walnut shells. Yes, I know, more questions and confusion is happening right now. But we’ll get into it and it’ll all make sense and it’ll all lightly blow your mind, too! 

 Okay, let’s start with Martha Edlin’s casket! As I said on episode 12 last season, Martha Edlin is really important because her entire suite of needlework survives and therefore tells us a lot about how wealthy girls learnt to stitch in mid to late 17th-century England. Martha’s stuff was passed down through the women in her family and was given to the V&A in the 1920s and every object is a DELIGHT. Martha’s casket is an absolute treasure trove – it’s filled with a whole array of miniature objects she made or was given throughout her life, with most of them being from her youth. Here’s a list of what was in her casket: a variety of miniature cooking tools, including several pots and kettles, a miniature purse, a metal thread bird, a pair of miniature gloves, two pin cushions, one larger pillow, a needle case and bodkin, and a purse shaped like a pair of bellows. I’ll be looking at the miniature gloves, bird, and bellows purse in this episode.  

So, let’s get looking at those gloves, which the V&A categorise as toy gloves. This is the description of those gloves on the V&A website: “Pair of gloves made as a needlework exercise. Each glove is made as a single piece rather than front and back joined. They are constructed from finely plaited silk and metal thread braid sewn edge to edge and then embroidered. This creates the effect of a cream glove with decorative details on the back outlined in twined pink and silver thread, and the same pink and silver forming a cuff widening out and edged with loops and a bow. The reverse of each is plain as if the palm of the glove.” The gloves are very, very cute. The V&A record states that the gloves were made circa 1670, when Martha was a girl working on the rest of her needlework suite, which I have no reason to disagree with. There’s quite a lot of miniature stuff like this that has been found within boxes from this time period or associated with those boxes so it seems that girls made this little bitty objects alongside their larger embroidery projects like samplers and mirror surrounds and cabinets. This is the only pair of miniature gloves made by a schoolgirl I know of, though. I think there were probably many more made by girls being taught to stitch, but they’re so small it makes sense they were lost over the course of centuries. In shape, they look a lot like the normal scale gloves of the seventeenth century, with their long fingers and large gauntlets. I don’t know why Martha made tiny gloves but I like thinking of all the possibilities. Maybe she was making a lil bitty version of a pair of gloves she had or maybe she was making gloves for a doll or maybe she was dreaming of making human-sized gloves when she got better at stitching or maybe she was mimicking a pair of gloves her dad owned or maybe she just liked gloves and had extra materials and was bored and ended up making them. Who knows. But I love imagining Martha stitching her tiny gloves at her school, maybe talking with her schoolmates and thinking about her future and what her life will be like and everything else an 11 year old girl would be thinking about 350 years ago. The richness of historic needlework is such that a teeny tiny object can lead to all of these big questions and vibrant narratives is very cool and makes my heart sing and is such a joy. Okay, that’s enough of my waxing poetic about my love of historic miniature gloves. Back to the objects in Martha’s casket.   

While Martha’s mini gloves are the only known examples of that sort of thing, two of the other miniature needleworked objects in Martha’s casket do have contemporaneous examples. Those things are the miniature bird and the bellows purse. Let’s get to the bird first. The bird’s exterior is made entirely out of a loose kind of metal ribbon, I think, rather than metal thread and it has lil wire legs and feet covered in metal ribbon, too. The bird has a curved neck and black bead eyes. And it has scalloped feathers and a tail all made of fabric covered in that same metal ribbon. The bird doesn’t seem to have a purpose beyond being decorative – it doesn’t seem to be a pin cushion or pouch or anything like that. Martha Edlin’s bird is not the only example of a teeny tiny 17th-century bird made by a schoolgirl. There are examples at the National Museum of Scotland and the Burrell Collection, too, and I’m sure there are many others out there. The one in the National Museum of Scotland does not have any online images but I’ve seen it in real life and it’s a similar size to the Edlin example and has a long body and a beak made of wire and individual needleworked feathers in yellow, blue, and red. It has a little string connected to it. It also looks like it doesn’t have any purpose beyond decoration. But the Burrell collection bird does have a purpose. That one is, according to the museum record, a thimble case and it’s made entirely out of detached buttonhole stitches. The bird has a green body with a yellow and pink head and lil wire legs covered in brown thread, and feathers in green and blue and red. The feathers can be pulled out to reveal a pouch made of dark green silk. It’s the only embroidered bird from the period I know of that has a purpose and its purpose makes sense – two of these birds are found within schoolgirl caskets and cabinets so it makes sense that these girls were making needlework tools and accessories as they were developing their needlework skills. 

 But why birds? I don’t know – I think it’s the same question to ask with those frog pouches I talked about in an episode last season. Maybe there was a larger reason, a reason why girls chose to depict birds instead of other animals, or maybe it was just random and birds had good shapes to model and birds were everywhere so they were easy to mimic in wire and thread. All I know is that these birds are tiny delights and very much fall into the category of really small 17th-century needleworked objects. 

 The last thing from Martha Edlin’s casket I wanna talk about is her miniature bellows purse. This is a really itty bitty purse, 8.2 cm by 4.2 cm, which is 3.23 inches by 1.65 inches. It’s made entirely out of needlework, with its centre made out of detached buttonhole stitch, as well as spangles and little beads. The purse literally looks like a bellows, which is a device that emits air when squeezed together by its two handles. They’re like the bellows you use to blow air into a fire. These bellows-shaped purses from the 17th century are pretty common – there are examples at the Met and V&A and a few other places, too. Some of the surviving examples were found within cabinets and caskets so it’s likely that these, too, were schoolgirl projects. I have a lot of thoughts on these bellows so here’s a Sparknotes version. I think maybe these objects were sweetbags which held scents and were used as pomanders, which could be held against the nose to provide relief from the stinky stinky 17th century. I think that these bellows purses, like full size bellows, offer their user literal fresh air. Symbolic and literal and a delight all around.

 So, the question I have to ask here after going through some of the Martha Edlin objects is this: what was up with the love of miniature needleworked goods in the seventeenth century? There’s a universal human love for the teeny tiny – we love doll houses and really crazy small chihuahuas and babies and a wide variety of other miniscule stuff. So I think for these 17th-century girls there was that, that love of the small and the equivalent of the small to the cute, but I think it’s more than that, too. I think miniature stuff allowed girls to practice and subsequently show off their needlework dexterity – they could show off how their embroidery talent allowed them to make three-dimensional forms out of thread, creating smaller versions of objects they saw every day. Aaand these miniature objects were convenient because they could be stored within the girls’ cabinets and caskets. They allowed girls to show off and use and be proud not only of these needleworked boxes, but also the objects within them. And gloves, birds, and bellows are not the only miniature objects made by schoolgirls that have been found in cabinets and caskets. There are miniature stalks of wheat and ears of corn and snakes and stags and dogs and flowers out there, too. Miniature delights everywhere! All thanks to 17th-century British schoolgirls. 

 But there are many other teeny objects from this time period and group of makers I want to discuss. These next objects are small, yes, but really what brings them all together is their focus on luxury. These objects mix together needlework skill and novelty and materials that were either very expensive or just like…totally wild and unnecessary to cover in embroidery. The two types of objects I’m talking about here are embroidered nutmegs and embroidered eggs. Yes, weird, and yes, intriguing. 

 So, embroidered nutmegs. What am I talking about? Great question. In the 17th century, amongst really quite fancy schoolgirls, there seemed to be a trend for covering nutmegs with embroidery. Several of these nutmegs are held in private collections and the only one in a museum that I know of is one in a casket in the National Museum of Scotland. Here’s why embroidering nutmegs is crazy beyond the fact that like why are you embroidering a seed??? It’s because nutmegs were SO expensive in the 17th century. SO expensive. Nutmeg was literally worth more than its weight in gold. In the Banda Islands in Indonesia, where nutmeg came from, ten pounds of nutmeg cost one English penny. But when they got to London that same amount would cost two pounds, ten shillings, which is a 68,000% mark up. Take that in. 68 THOUSAND PERCENT. My goodness. And one more shocking statistic for you. Each time a nutmeg changed hands on its voyage back to Europe, its value rose 100%. Crazy town. But why was nutmeg so expensive? Weeeeell, at the beginning of the 17th century, nutmeg began to be considered a cure for the plague. It went from not being in demand in Europe at all to being the hottest commodity. And on top of that, it was the golden age of the early modern spice trade. The desire for nutmeg was so intense that Portugal, England, and the Netherlands battled for control of the Banda Islands, which was the only source of commercial nutmeg until 1770. The island of Rhun, one of the most fought over islands, became the first English overseas colony and eventually, all the battling countries calmed down in 1667, when the English traded control of Rhun for control of Manhattan island. How wild is that?!?!?! Colonisation is so so deeply cursed and bad and I for one had no idea nutmeg was integral to the whole thing.

 This is all to say that nutmegs were SUPER expensive in the 1600s so the idea of embroidering them is straight up bananas. You have to pay 68,000% more and you’re not even using it, you’re covering it with needlework? Embroidering a nutmeg is the ULTIMATE like “hello yes I am wealthy enough to afford this crazy expensive thing and I’m so wealthy I can actually afford more than one so I can use one to actually use as a spice but I have an extra one so with this extra one I’ll just EMBROIDER ON IT.” There’s a casket at Witney Antiques whose maker embroidered 4 NUTMEGS. What is happening!!!! So um yes. Nutmeg decorating is the ultimate rich schoolgirl learning how to stitch AND just revelling in her wealth object. Okay, right, like I said earlier, one such example is in the National Museum of Scotland and was found within a casket that also held a miniature needlework deer, dog, snake, and flowers, as well as pin cushions and purses and other bits. The nutmeg is covered in what I think is wire wrapped in silk thread. There are circles of green and blue and the top and bottom are pink. Attached to it is a looped cord probably used to hang the nutmeg around one’s wrist. Also attached is a little slip of fabric with a verse written on it that unfortunately doesn’t tell us anything about the maker or her lil nutmeg. It’s very similar to the embroidered nutmegs in the casket at Witney Antiques, so clearly these were a schoolgirl craft. Super rich girls were making these in schools, probably. Embroidered nutmegs are the PREEMINENT example of mixing together wealth, luxury, and the deep need to show off one’s needlework skill by any means possible. 

 The last super crazy type of miniature needleworked object made by 17th-century English schoolgirls is also MIND BLOWING and there’s only one surviving example I know of this thing and when I say what it is it’ll make sense. What I’m talking about here is an EMBROIDERED EGG. Yes, an egg. Or more specifically, an eggshell. An eggshell that has been literally embroidered has survived something like 350 years. And we can tell that the egg is from 17th-century England based on the type of needlework on it. The egg was sold Hansons Auctioneers recently and is now at Witney Antiques. The entire egg shell is covered in floral embroidery and there are no cracks in the eggshell itself. So, like, how did this person 350 years ago embroider an egg? How did they get the actual egg out? Great questions that I keep asking and can’t get answers to because it’s the only object of its kind that’s known. I’m figuring the embroiderer carefully created small holes where her stitches would go, but my question is how do you turn your needle and fit in into those holes in an extremely delicate, not at pliable material? Because we know next to nothing about this embroidered egg, it’s impossible to say whether or not it was made by a schoolgirl. What is clear, though, is that embroidering an egg was a really intense “I am a super skilled needleworker” power move. There’s no point to it – it’s entirely decorative. 

 And it’s that pointlessness that says a lot about the egg’s embroiderer. She was wealthy enough to have the leisure time to embroider an egg and had excess materials to do it. And this was probably a good way to also show off her “feminine virtues” like grace and delicacy. Not only could she stitch, she could stitch on this thing that could break at any second!! Now, you might be asking, why are including this weird egg in an episode about teeny tiny needleworked objects made by schoolgirls if you don’t know if this was made by a schoolgirl? Well, I’m including the egg because a lot of ideas around egg are the same as those that surround the tiny gloves and the bellows purses and the embroidered nutmegs. These objects were ways to show off not only a girl or woman’s embroidery skills, but also her good breeding, her wealth, and her delicate touch. These objects tell us not only about their makers, but also the type of ideal femininity these girls and women had to strive to achieve. 

 And now, before I conclude the episode, I want to briefly mention an object that is not needleworked but that is another 17th-century schoolgirl object whose charm and wonder lie in its teeny tininess. That object is the pair of kid leather gloves that were stored within a walnut shell. Can you imagine??? Sticking a pair of gloves into an absolutely miniscule nut shell? Well, this is another example of luxury within the world of some of England’s richest schoolgirls. Their gloves were soft and supple enough that they could fold into the tiniest of spaces. That’s very impressive to anyone who would see that – there’s a wonder that comes with gloves that fine. And there’s also a very acute sense of control that’s present in this glove and walnut shell pairing, as there is in a lot of the objects I talked about on today’s episode. These girls are asserting control over nature with their objects. They’re stuffing these gloves, made from lambs or goats into this natural, hollowed out shell. They’re able to take this one aspect of nature and stuff into another and therefore have control over both. So tied in with the wonder that comes with marvelling at these tiny objects made and decorated by these preteen girls is this sense of control – these girls not only have control over their needles, but control over nature, too. There’s a lot that can be said about early modern ideas about the relationship between humans and nature but that’s not very needlework-y so I’ll end that tangent by saying control is integral to these needleworking girls – they’re learning to control their stitching and nature, yes, but also, they’re also being taught to control their tempers and emotions and to be the fair, gentle ladies much of 17th-century society wants them to be. So clearly, needlework can tell us a lot about these girls and the world in which they lived! But you knew that already. 

 I love these lil weird tiny joyful objects and I hope you do too. One of the many reasons why I love these itty bitty schoolgirl pieces is that in addition to working this stuff to gain needlework skills, they also worked this stuff to beautify their world. And I really like that. I like that, for girls who were wealthy enough to be educated at school and to afford those bright silk threads and spangles and beads, they made their pin cushions and their purses and their random chachki stuff with so much care and precision and detail. Nothing is plain or boring. It’s all covered with colour and sparkle. And I think that in these continued weird times, it’s nice to find joy and light in the literal small stuff. And I feel really lucky that I can do that and take you all on that journey with me! 

 So, on that note, thank you for listening. And thanks for being here for the start of Sew What? Season 2! Remember to check out the website and the Patreon if you’re so inclined. And be sure to tell your friends about the pod if you want. And like and rate and review and subscribe, if you want to, too! I appreciate all of you. 

 Now go out and stitch some stories and maybe embroider an egg if you wanna? I will support all your embroidered egg endeavours. Bye!