The simplest patterns are by no means the least beautiful. It is too much the fashion to underrate the artistic value of the less pretentious forms of needlework, and especially of flat ornament, which has, nevertheless, its own very important place in decoration. As for geometric pattern, that is held to be beneath consideration - it is so mechanical! Mechanical is a word as easily spoken as another; but if needlework is mechanical, that is more often the fault of the needlewoman than of the mechanism she employs. The Orientals, who indulged so freely in geometric device, were the least mechanical of workers. It is our rigid way of working it which robs geometric ornament of its charm. The needleworker has less than ever occasion to be afraid of geometric pattern ; for it is peculiarly difficult to get with the needle that appearance of rule-and-compass-work which makes ornament so dull.
The one real objection to geometric pattern is that it is nowadays so cheaply and so mechanically got by weaving that, however freely it may be rendered, there is a danger of its suggesting mechanical production, which embroidery emphatically ought not to do. There is a similar objection nowadays to some stitches, such, for example, as chain-stitch and back-stitch: they suggest the sewing-machine.
Embroidery does not to-day take quite the place it once did. It was used, for example, by the early Coptic Christians to supplement tapestry. That is to say, what they could not weave they stitched ; it was only to get more delicate detail than their tapestry loom would allow, that they had recourse to the needle. Needlework was, in fact, an adjunct to weaving. Later, in mediaeval times, the Germans of Cologne, for their church vestments and the like, wove what they could, and enriched their woven figures with embroidery.
Again, a great deal of Oriental embroidery, and of peasant work everywhere, is merely the result of circumstances. Where money is scarce and time is of no account, it answers a woman's purpose to do for herself with her needle what might in some respects be even better done on the loom. Her preference for handwork is not that it has artistic possibilities, but that it costs her less. She would in many cases prefer the more mechanically produced fabric, if she could get it at the same price. We do not find that Orientals reject the productions of the power-loom - which they would do if they had the artistic instincts with which we credit them.
It results from our conditions of to-day that there are some kinds of needlework we admire, which yet are seldom worth our doing, such, for example, as the all-over work, which does not amount to more than simple diaper, and which really is not so much embroidering on a textile as converting it into one of another kind. Glorified instances of this kind of work occur in the shawl work of Cashmere, and in those beautiful bits of Persian stitching which remind one of carpet-work in miniature, if they are not in fact related to carpet-weaving.
Embroidery was at one time the readiest, and practically the only, means of getting enrichment of certain kinds. To-day we get machine embroidery. As machinery is perfected, and learns to do what formerly could be done only by the needle, handworkers get pushed aside and fall out of work. Their chance is, in keeping always in advance of the machine. There is this hope for them, that the monotony of machine-made things produces in the end a reaction in favour of handwork - provided always it gives us something which manufacture cannot. Possibly also there is scope for amateurs and home-artists in that combination of embroidery and hand-weaving with which the power-loom, though it has superseded it, does not enter into competition.
It is not so much for geometric ornament as for simple pattern that the plea is here made for
that reticent work of which so much was at one time done in this country - mere back-stitching, for example, or what looks like it, in yellow silk upon white linen ; or the modest diaper, archaic, if you like, but inevitably characteristic, in which the naivete of the sampler seems always to linger; or again, the admirably simple work in Illustration 97 (Simple Stitching On Linen). This last does not show so delicately in the photographic reproduction as it should, because, being in grey and yellow on white linen, the relative value of the two shades of colour is lost in the photograph. In the original the broader yellow bands are much more in tone with the ground, and do not assert themselves so much. Such as it is, only an artist could have designed that border-work ; and any neat-handed woman could have embroidered it.
Think again of the delicate work in white or in self colour, which makes no loud claim to be art, but is content to be beautiful! Is that to be a thing altogether of the past now that we have Art Needlework ? Art needlework ! It has helped to put an end to the patience of the modern worker, and to inspire her too often with ambitions far beyond her powers of fulfilment.
What one misses in the work of the present day is that reticent and unpretending stitchery, which, thinking to be no more than a labour of loving patience, is really a work of art, better deserving the title than much that is done in the name of
"art needlework." We plume ourselves too much upon our art. Is any one nowadays modest enough to do work such as the couching in outline in Illustration 98 (Simple Couching On Linen)? Yet what distinction there is about it!