Sew What?

The Needlework of Historic Boyz II Men

June 03, 2021 Isabella Rosner Season 2 Episode 18
Sew What?
The Needlework of Historic Boyz II Men
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, Isabella discusses needlework made by boys and men in the 18th and 19th centuries. She focuses on professional embroideries, sailor woollies, trench art, and schoolboy samplers.

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

Whatsup stitches!!! Welcome to episode 18 of season 2 of this here podcast, Sew What?! I’m Isabella Rosner, your local historic needlework lover, here to take you on a riveting, needlework-based journey once more. Today’s episode is about historical boys and men making needlework. Now, I gotta say a few lil things before I proceed with this topic. One: gender is a spectrum rather than a binary, but although there were many trans and nonbinary individuals throughout history, that was not the accepted norm. This episode examines historic boy’s needlework AND it’s essentially impossible to discern one’s gender identity in historic examples of stitch. So basically, this episode kinda buys in to the boy-girl binary that was in action in the centuries I’ll look at today, which are the 18th through early 20th. I hope that’s fair and understandable. Secondly!! I am looking primarily at examples of boys and men stitching from Western Europe, Britain, and the United States. That is very much not to say boys and men did not stitch anywhere else – they did, I’m just not talking about them in this episode because these are the regions I know best when it comes to dudes stitching. This is just the tiniest snapshot of the history of boys and men stitching in a very specific part of the world. Cool? Cool. Now, onwards! 

Lucky for you all, you only have to hear my social media shpiel two more times after this one this season! Will you miss me saying this every episode? Probably not. But I gotta do it, so here goes! As always, images and sources are up on the Sew What? social media pages, so you can see the objects I’m talking about and where I got my information. Go to @sewwhatpodcast on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Or go to the podcast website, 

 Okay! Onwards. Let’s get into some guys stitching, shall we? We’ll start with Medieval men stitching because that’s when information about male embroiderers really starts in Western Europe, specifically in London and Paris. Opus Anglicanum, extremely high quality ecclesiastical embroidery that came out of England, was produced by both men and women in London workshops. Around the same time in Paris, men and women also stitched alongside each other in a professional capacity. The tax roll of 1292 lists fourteen master embroiderers, both men and women. Margaret Wade Labarge, who wrote a hugely helpful article called “Stitches in Time: Medieval Embroidery in its Social Setting,” asserts, “It is probable that in Paris, as in London, men were more involved in supervising and selling the embroideries made predominantly by women.” 

 By the 16th century, the role of professional embroiderer was largely limited to men, at least in England. Male professional embroiderers were members of the Worshipful Company of Broderers, chartered in 1561. Guild membership was restricted to men. At this time, these male embroiderers in England were stitching things like ecclesiastical embroideries, court costumes, and heraldic work. They may have also been making cabinets, caskets, mirror surrounds, and beadwork baskets. What is certain is that men in 17th century England were heavily involved in embroidery draughtsmanship and material supply. They often drew the underdrawings girls and women in the home would stitch upon. Perhaps the most famous embroidery supply dude of the 17th century is John Nelham, born around 1640 and working in London until his death around 1684. He was associated with the Worshipful Company of Broderers’, which of course makes sense. He was the son of Robert Nelham, who was also an embroidery designer and materials supplier. John Nelham produced embroidery designs as well as his own embroideries and is credited with popularising a design that involved a central cartouche, sometimes surrounded by loops of ribbon, that featured an image or scene separate from what surrounded the cartouche. He was associated with William Rutlish, one of the king’s official embroiderers, which leads to that topic. 

 The King’s embroiderer was an official position from the late medieval period onwards within the Great Wardrobe, which was a branch of the English monarch’s court from the 13th through 18th centuries. This embroiderer made embroidered goods for the royal family and ran the royal atelier. These goods included the monarch’s clothing, sword hangings, heraldry bits and bobs, garters and girdles, banners, household furnishings, ecclesiastical furnishings for royal chapels, and covers for Bibles and prayer books. The king’s embroiderer was always a dude stitching for a dude. Monarchs across Europe hired men to stitch high quality embroideries for the royal families and households. One such guy, Charles German de Saint-Aubin, who was a designer to King Louis XVI, published a treatise on embroidery in 1770 that remains one of the most important sources of technical information on 18th-century needlework. So thanks to that guy! 

Speaking of French embroidery, a lot of the extant embroidered waistcoats and suits which were super popular pieces of menswear in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were stitched by professional embroidery dudes rather than women in the home. Quite a few museums have swatches of fabric from the period that feature opulent embroidery. These were essentially used as samples to show clients what these professional embroiderers could stitch. Both the Met and the Cooper Hewitt have a lot of these samples and all have been attributed to France, even though embroidered menswear was popular in Britain and across Europe. Just some guys being dudes stitching some waistcoats and coats for other guys being dudes!! Love to see it. But also kinda don’t love to see it because it points to the complicated issue of needlework that was professional and therefore considered to be of the highest quality being limited to just male embroiderers at this point. But that is just in this one instance and many women did produce drawn embroidery designs professionally and others sold their needlework to neighbours in exchange for money and goods and still other women had straight up sewing businesses. So it’s not possible to simply say that by the 18th century men were mostly the professional embroiderers and women were the amateur stitchers. Many women were professional embroiderers just in a different and oftentimes smaller capacity. And that’s my attempt to untangle the knot of gendering historic needlework. It’s messy!! 

 Now, let’s move to a very specific group of 19th-century men who needleworked. These are British sailors who produced large-scale woolworks, lovingly called woollies. Mariners stitched portraits of their ships between their trips to sea, while they were in port or even out on the open sea. This trend lasted from approximately 1840 to the beginning of World War I. Sometimes wooly makers depicted their ships alongside patriotic symbols, flags, or landscapes. Most of these pieces were made of wool threads on duck linen and involved stitches like cross, chain, long, and trapunto. The earliest examples tended to be made using just chain stitch with wool, but as time went on the stitch variety grew and cotton and silk threads were also used. Thread was really the only thing the sailors needed to bring from home or buy at a port, since the duck linen came from sailors’ trousers, sail canvas came from the sails, and plain linens and cottons were available on the ship for repairs and other bits. 

 By the time wooly production peaked in the mid to late 1800s, sailors had begun embellishing their portraits with pieces of bone, metal, glass, and sequins. Most of them were left unsigned and no two are the same. Paul Vandekar, who is the world’s leading dealer of these woolworks, has some short but lovely things to say about these pieces. He states, “These were simply crafts to document their journeys. They were symbols of the pride they felt representing their ships and country.” I find that lovely, the idea of documenting one’s journey and pride in their work through stitch. 

 Now, you may be asking, why did these sailors stitch? Well, until the 1880s, seamen had no standard uniform and therefore had to provide and maintain their own, which meant they had to be able to stitch up and fix their uniforms when they needed to. Additionally, they had to be able to repair a ship’s sails. So they had at least two reasons to be skilled stitchers. I wanted to share an interesting theory about how British sailors started making these pieces with you all. An author named Steven Banks, in his 1974 book The Handicrafts of the Sailor, surmised that the woolworks were inspired by Chinese embroideries sold to sailors in Hong Kong and the Treaty Ports, which opened to Western sailors in 1842. This makes sense given that the trend began in the 1840s. The popularity of woollies faded because of the advent of steam engine power, since that meant ships depended less on sails and the large crews required to maintain them. At the same time, sailors were no longer required to sew their own uniforms, so they lost both sources of their needlework knowledge. 

 As sailors stitched, so did soldiers. These examples often qualify as trench art, which is a term used for objects made by military, civilians, or commercial groups actively and directly involved in an armed conflict. Extant examples of soldiers stitching exist from the 18th century. One example at Witney Antiques was made by Joseph Gregory at 21 years old. It features a man on horseback holding a long sword with the inscription “The Duke of York 1794.” It’s embroidered on wool felt, which suggests that it is military embroidery and that Joseph was a soldier. It’s a really rare survival. The felt ground implies military because 18th-century military uniforms and hats were made of felt. Just after Joseph Gregory stitched his piece, there was another series of instances of male soldiers stitching. Between 1797 and 1814, before the Napoleonic Wars even officially began, French prisoners of war confined in England made needlework. These prisoners of war were allowed to supplement their rations by selling handmade goods, so a lot of them made straw work boxes and carved bone ornaments and games. Evidence suggests that they also stitched, sometimes using their own hair. These POWs also made a lot of needlework-adjacent tools. They carved lace bobbins and made bodkins, sewing boxes, needle and thimble cases, thread winders, and pincushions. So not only were they themselves stitching, they made tools that helped others stitch. 

 I’ll talk about a few more examples of soldiers stitching, going chronologically. The next instance of soldier sewing I wanna discuss is very much like the sailor woollies. It’s a large woolwork piece from about 1870, now at Witney Antiques. It depicts, according to the inscription, the sergeants’ mess and library in Bangalore. It shows a large, many windowed, white building with red roof and a soldier on horseback in front of it. Presumably, a British soldier stationed in India depicted the building he spent so much time eating and reading in. It’s like the soldier iteration of sailor woolwork, very similar in material, size, composition, and content. 

 Now, let’s jump to a World War I example. The example I have in mind is very much not strictly men stitching, but it’s men utilising stitching. What I’m thinking of are the embroidered silk postcards of World War I. These embroidered postcards, which were really popular during the war and immediately after, featured designs and messages worked in silk threads and were mostly made in France. The Textile Research Centre in Leiden has a really good online article about these postcards, which I’ll read you part of because it does a really good job of explaining their production. Here it is: “During the war, the range of designs worked was varied and included obviously military subjects, such as the flags of the allies (notably Belgium, Britain, Croatia, France, Italy, Portugal, Russia, and the USA), names of regiments, figures of famous generals, and more public subjects such as Christmas, birthdays and New Year best wishes. In addition, many cards carried illustrations of butterflies and flowers, as gentler, more sympathetic images. Comparable cards were made in Germany, but with different designs and texts.

The designs and texts were worked in small, silk gauze panels with colourful, free style embroidery. A wide range of stitches were used, including the back stitch, basket weave stitch, individual cross stitches, herringbone stitch, reverse herringbone stitch (to create a shadow work effect), double running stitch (Holbein stitch), satin stitch, stem stitch, as well as various composite stitches. These embroidered panels were then stuck to a card frame embossed with a decorative edging.

In the past, various questions have been raised about these cards, especially as to how the cards were decorated, and by whom. There are several possible answers. It has been suggested that the images were hand embroidered by Belgian and French women who had been afflicted by the war. But would they have really been able to hand embroider millions of cards? Another explanation, and far more likely, is that they were machine made, but this brings us to the question, which type of machine was used?

A machine that could imitate the appearance of these hand stitches is the Hand-Embroidery Machine that was invented in 1828 by Josué Heilmann in Mulhouse, France. In 1835, technical drawings of his machine were published. The machine was further developed over the following decades by various engineers and companies in Britain, France, Germany and Switzerland. Basically, this hand-embroidery machine used a pantograph system to transfer the stitches. Each stitch is drawn out on a large scale design and then its position traced by an operator using a point on one arm of the pantograph. A series of needles responds to the movement of the pantograph arm. Each needle has an eye in the middle for the thread, and two sharp ends. The needle is passed backwards and forwards through the ground cloth using a pincer system (double-sided pincer wagons), so imitating the action and appearance of hand embroidery. Each colour in the design is individually stitched (so all the blue parts, for example, are worked, and then the machine is re-threaded with a new colour), until the design is complete. This machine, in various sizes, was used in both domestic and factory settings…Using hand-embroidery machines it was possible to produce hundreds of images on a sheet in one go. An important detail in this respect is that none of the sheets or individual postcards so far examined show any indication of a drawn or printed design that would have been essential if the embroideries were being made by hand. However, if the hand-embroidery machines were being used, then the drawings were transferred directly to the rows of needles by use of a pantograph, so no drawing or printed outline was required.

Once embroidered, the strips/sheets were cut up and the individual images were stuck into an embossed card frame. They were then sold to the public, especially the soldiers, at a relatively high price.” So, even though soldiers were not embroidering these postcards themselves, they were engaging with them in a massive way. Even though in this instance the soldiers themselves were not stitching, they were surrounded by and readily purchased this very decorative, patriotic, and even sentimental needlework. 

One final example of soldiers stitching I wanna mention is the stitching of Major Alexis Casdagli during World War II. He is best known for the Casdagli sampler, which he made in 1941 as a British prisoner of war in Germany. Six months into his time at the prisoner of war camp, which was in a German castle, he was given some embroidery canvas and began to stitch, a skill he learned from his elderly relatives. He took some red and blue threads from a disintegrating pullover that belonged to a Greek general and used that to stitch. He wrought a cross stitch sampler that had an inscription in the centre that reads, “The work was done by Major A. J. Casdagli no. 3311 while in captivity at Dossel-Warburg Germany December 1941.” The inscription is framed by a border of swastikas representing Germany, eagles representing the USA, lions representing Europe, and the hammer and sickle representing the Soviet Union. There are several narrow borders of dots and dashes, a secret Morse coe message reading “God Save the King” and “Fuck Hitler.” Pardon my French but also heck yeah to that sentiment. While in the camp he also stitched letters to his 11 year old son. He wrote entire letters in stitch! Hoo-wee. He also created a map-diagram thing in needlework that showed his room in the camp. He labelled it Room 13, Spangenberg castle and it showed inmates’ cells, a few lumps of coal, a sign readings, “bath every 14 days,” and a menu that read “soup, potatoes, wurst, bread, semolina. At the bottom Casdagli stitched a British flag with a flap over it that reads “do not open” in German. Through needlework, Casdagli was able to voice his political opinions, communicate with his family, and map his surroundings, all through stitch. And on top of that, Casdagli ran a needlework school for other officers in the POW camps. He is the ultimate historic needlework icon!! 

 The other side of soldiers stitching during war is soldiers stitching as they recovered from war. I’ve talked briefly about examples of Australian soldiers stitching after the Great War in a past episode, but now I’m gonna hit you with a lot of examples. While rehabilitation through stitch really hit its stride during and after World War I, there are earlier examples. Witney Antiques has a hussif, which held sewing supplies, stitched by one William Burwise from 24 August to 6 October 1852. Burwise could have been a soldier fighting in any number of British colonial wars at the time which, yikes, so we can’t say what war he was injured in, but it is pretty certain he stitched this hussif during his convalescence. This is what his stitched inscription says: "NEEDLE HUSIEF AUGUST 24 1852 ITS ON THIS BED WHERE I DO LAY PHYSICIANS ARE IN VAIN UNTILL GOD ABOVE SENDS DOWN HIS LOVE AND EASE ME OF MY PAIN THE LORD GAVE AND THE HATH TAKEN AWAY BLESSED BE THE NAME OF THE LORD AMEN WHAT A BLESSED THING TO HAVE THE USE OF YOUR LIMBS NO ONE KNOWE WHERE THE SHOE PINCHES BUT HE THAT WEARS IT HOW HARD IT IS TO BE CONFINED OUT OF SIGHT OUT OF MIND WILLIAM BURWISE WHEN YOU ARE DOWN WHERE IS YOUR FRIEND OCTOBER 6 FORGET ME NOT." William Burwise likely lost his foot and/or leg, given his verse, "No one knowe where the shoe pinches but he that wears it." Burwise’s stitching tells the tale of real pain, lose, and loneliness, which is really sad. I gotta hope that William went on to live a happier life after this! Clearly though, as we can see, stitching was used as a form of rehabilitation for soldiers at least 60 years before the Great War. When World War I did hit, needlework was taught to convalescing soldiers across at least Britain, Europe, the Americas, and Australia, if not also in other regions. Embroidery was thought to be a really good activity because it was calm and meditative work that was good for fine motor skills and was easy to hold in one’s lap in bed. 

 One somewhat famous example of soldiers stitching as rehab is a needleworked altar frontal now at St Paul’s cathedral in London. Basically, during World War I, the Royal School of Needlework organised the embroidering of an altar frontal for the cathedral, which was stitched by 133 soldiers recovering in hospitals all across Britain. The piece was designed in 5 panels which were then stitched together by folks at the Royal School of Needlework. It was removed for safekeeping during the Blitz in World War II and wasn’t on display again until 2014, when it was on display until 2018, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the war. So yeah, as you can see, there are many, MANY instances of military men stitching throughout history. 

 Now, from men to boys. What if the band Boyz II Men was actually called Men II Boyz? Much to think about. Anyway!! Let’s talk briefly about examples of boys’ needlework, as seen on 18th- and 19th-century samplers. There are quite few samplers made by boys, so I’ll mention just a selection of them. There are a few at Witney Antiques, including a sampler from approximately the 1730s to 40s by an English boy named Thomas Mead and one made by a Scottish boy named George Davie in 1816. Then at Cooper Hewitt there’s a circa 1800-30 American sampler made by Margereta Whann that also lists the name George Terrell. The inclusion of George Terrell’s name is mysterious – did George work on the sampler with Margereta? Was he a classmate or a schoolteacher? A family member with a different surname? There are lots of questions here and truly no answers. There’s an 18th-century American sampler made by a Maine boy named Louis Hitchlings sold at auction a few years ago, too. Louis’ sampler is date 1784 and consists mostly of text. And one final American example is a sampler discussed on this podcast last season, specifically in my interview with Kelli Coles. This is perhaps less of a sampler and more of a needleworked picture which shows a bouquet of flowers with floral and strawberry borders, stitched by William Levington in 1832 and now in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg. The inscription reads, “Worked by William Levington Rector/ of St. James First African P. E. Church/ in Baltimore and/ Respectfully presented to/ James Bosley Esq. July the 4 1832.” Levington was a Black pastor and founder of St James First African Protestant Episcopal Church in Baltimore. His piece is the only known sampler stitched by a Black man in America and it’s stunning. 

 That is just the tiniest selection of samplers made by boys (and one man). They’re rare but not thaaaaat rare. Clearly, there were boys stitching samplers in Europe and the Americas! Why these specific boys were taught to stitch is not known but perhaps they were expected to go into employment that would have benefited from stitching skills. I don’t know! But I can imagine a bunch of different scenarios and answers to that question. The mystery and intrigue remain. 

 We live in a glorious time in the study of men’s needlework. Just this April Joseph McBrinn published a book called Queering the Subversive Stitch: Men and the Culture of Needlework which is so perfect for this episode. Listen to the chapter titles and tell me they’re not absolutely perfect:  “Only sissies and women sew”: an introduction, Needlework and the creation of masculinities: “the prick” of patriarchy, “Killing the angel in the house”: Victorian manliness, domestic handicrafts and homosexual panic, “The mesh canvas”: amateur needlecrafts, masculinity and modernism, Masculinity and “the politics of cloth”: from the “bad boys” of postmodern art to the “the boys that sew club” of the new millennium, Conclusion: “Men who Embroider.” What a treat. The study of historic men’s stitching is alive and well! And the book also gets into contemporary men’s needlework, which this episode will not because this is a HISTORIC needlework podcast, emphasis on the historic. 

 Now, I realise that, for many people, one of the joys of historic needlework is the fact that it was usually made by girls and women. I get that – the original description of this podcast was something like “celebrating historic needlework and the gals that stitched it,” so I totally get the pride and joy that comes with this typically and supposedly feminine craft. But I wanted to show that although, yes, the vast majority of stitchery was produced by women, men were there too and they were stitching sometimes alongside women and other times they were stitching wildly different things. They used the same material for different means and to different ends. I actually really love that as I study historic needlework and delve into the identities and stories of thousands of girls and women, occasionally a boy or man will pop up in the story and it’ll be like “Hey! What’s up! Happy to have you here.” It’s a fun, inclusive party. I like that in the case of amateur historic needlework, it’s the men who are more unexpected and mysterious, not the women. It’s the total opposite of all that I was taught during my art history degrees, which focused so heavily on male painters and sculptors. I enjoy that needlework turns those gender norms on their heads sometimes! What a treat. 

 What I also love is how the calming and emotional effects of needlework are so clear in men’s stitching. Needlework was historically used as a way for dudes to celebrate and take pride in their job and also as a way to help them recover from deep trauma. It deepens lives and becomes a way to express things like joy and pride and remembrance. Just like women, men stitched for work but also for pleasure. And some started their needlework journey really young, making samplers. As we’ve seen, historically, men were stitching at all ages and under all sorts of circumstances. There’s something wonderfully unifying in that.

 And that’s all I’ve got to say about boys and men needleworking in past centuries! Yeehaw! I know this was a jam packed episode, but I hope you were able to learn a thing or two amongst the meandering journey through stitch. As always, thank you so much for listening and for supporting the pod! I appreciate you!

 Now go out and stitch some stories and stitch some anti-fascist sentiments in morse code like Major Alexis Casdagli.