Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Crosscurrents: Land, Labor, and the Port. Textile Society of America's 15th Biennial Symposium. Savannah. GA. October 19-23. 2016.


Copyright 2016 by Lisa VandenBerghe.


Needlework pattern books, a genre that first appeared in the early 16th century as printing-press technology became widely available, were some of the first art books for the common people. Their pages offered charted, linear, and figurative designs in a wide range of complexities and styles. I use the term “needlework” to represent the group of decorative textile-arts which these books target. This includes a range of techniques that use a needle alone or with other tools, such as embroidery, lacemaking, knitting, and tablet and small-loom weaving. Students of women’s history may know the pattern books for their introductory pages that position the books as instruments in shaping docile women through domestic craft, as some second-wave feminist scholars, like Rozsika Parker,1 have influentially argued. Myself a historical needleworker who has used these books, I always shrugged off the gendered, moral prefaces, skipping ahead to the artwork that inspired my embroidery. Embarking on my Master’s Degree in History, I was drawn to examining my own use of the pattern books as a launching point for understanding their original audience. The deeper I dig, the more questions I have, and the pattern books have become a valuable filter for examining the relationships I see between art, craft, class, and gender. When I first started looking at the books of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I saw them as the German pattern books, the Italian pattern books, the French pattern books, etc. But as I investigated more critically, I realized that they were really very multinational. Some books may have been collaborative efforts, bringing together artists and publishers from different countries to create a volume, but more often they were amalgamations pieced together by a printer/publisher who wanted to capitalize on a popular trend and who had no concerns for plagiarism. I had planned to structure my presentation in chronological order, to trace for you the movement of the pattern books, their designs and ideas from point A to point B, to point C. But as others have pointed out this week, that’s a difficult thing to do when there is so much undocumented cross-pollination and parallel development. However, there are clearly elements in dialogue with each other, so it made more sense to weave it together as a multinational phenomenon, structuring it around larger themes, and highlighting some differences and similarities between nations. For today’s brief exploration of these currents of exchange, I will introduce how the printing press made early modern pattern books for needlework an affordable source of quality and international artwork, suggest their appeal to the emerging middle class who wanted to participate in fashion trends employing the elaborate needlework favoured by the elite, and discuss the gradual inclusion of the contradictory and controversial social discourse on women. First, I want to explain preluding pressures that shaped the origins of the pattern books and why they met with such success. The artistry of design has long been separate from the craft of the embroiderer, with social class acting as one divider. The quality of the finished embroidery was heavily influenced by the artistic ability of the drawer, so an embroiderer would desire to work from the best art they could afford for their craft. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Catharijneconvent have examples of professional and/or professionally trained artwork done directly on fabric to embroider over.2 Wealthy patrons paid professional artists to create embroidery designs, which were then professionally embroidered in workshops or worked at home, often under tutelage. At the highest level, celebrated artists created embroidery designs for the richest and most famous in international society. For example, we know that Holbein, who was German, designed for the English King Henry VIII.3 The wealthy elite also had the luxury of being able to hire artists from all over Europe to teach their children to draw and paint, and train their artistic eye, as well as needlework tutors to develop their skill to a high level. This dual training enabled them to create some of their own needlework designs when they wished, bringing together art and craft for a small minority.