Needlework and embroidery were a common pastime for women in Colonial America. Colonial embroideries ranged from the practical or educational to elaborate, but skill with a needle was necessary for every woman. Embroidery offered an opportunity for self-expression and illustrated the skills required to keep a family dressed and warm. Colonial embroidery remains a testament to the frugality, strength and industriousness of women in the Colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
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Colonial embroidery covers a wide time frame, ranging from the sixteenth century to the Revolutionary War, so styles, colors and patterns changed through the period. Settlers brought their own embroidery styles to the colonies, including stump work, crewel work, blackwork and a wide variety of stitches. While it is likely that many household items were embellished with embroidery, from 1650 onward the sampler was among the most common embroidery projects, and the one most likely to survive.
Embroidery and needlework was both a hobby and an essential skill in Colonial America. Being skilled at embroidery and sewing was a basic part of homemaking across all classes. The embroidery designs used in the Colonies were largely descended from the styles common and popular in Europe, with expected regional variations. Colonial designs have their roots in English and Dutch embroidery styles in particular, and it is likely that some of the embroidery patterns being sold in Europe during this period reached the colonies. Floral motifs and animals were common decorative elements, and someone skilled with a needle knew a wide variety of stitches and patterns, as exhibited by her sampler.
There are several distinctive traits found in North American embroidery that are not seen in European embroideries of the same period. The Colonies had a scarcity of materials for luxury crafts, like embroidery, so many Colonial American embroideries were frugal in their use of thread. The earliest embroideries from the Colonies used homespun linen thread, most commonly dyed with indigo. Later embroideries used wool or silk threads. Cotton was used for embroidery after the Colonial period. Stitches that cover the fabric base with thread are not favored, due to thread usage, but rather patterned stitches. Cross stitch was a common choice, as were a variety of crewel work stitches.
Embroidery in this period ranged from basic samplers stitched by schoolgirls to elaborate motifs used to embellish clothing and goods for the home. Complexity, materials and design could all signify the class or wealth of the seamstress. Creating a beautiful sampler as a young woman was often a means of showing both her skill and industriousness. Stitching samplers was also a common way for a young girl to illustrate her letters and numbers. Simpler patterns typically decorated household goods, including quilts, while complex stump work and crewel embroidery might have embellished the clothing of the very wealthy or served as decorative artwork.
Women of all social classes were expected to be handy with a needle. Depending upon the community, embroidery may have been used for household items or clothing. Many of the immigrants to the Colonies brought with them a strong work ethic, and hand work was considered a valuable skill and valid use of time. Being skillful with a needle was a sign of not only an industrious temperament but also often extended to support a woman's moral character.
Colonial embroidery continued to evolve after the Revolutionary War. Color palettes became more vivid as new dye techniques were created and materials were more accessible. Cotton thread manufactured for embroidery was available by the end of the eighteenth century, allowing for finer work at a lower cost. Samplers continued to be a common form of needlework and a teaching tool well into the nineteenth century.