IT is only of recent years that the art of needlework has come to be divided by a hard and fast line into plain sewing and embroidery. The two branches of the art are to my mind, and indeed used to be in practice, so nearly akin that the one merges into the other, and it is surely equally desirable to teach both. For it has become inevitable now-a-days to set about teaching this art as well as many another more important; the training formerly obtained by patient practice and watching a good method of work in a studio or 'workshop' (as they did not mind calling it then) being beyond the reach of most young people in these days, when apprenticeship is confined to mechanical trades, and is almost entirely discarded by artists. In past times it was natural and instinctive to decorate one's stitchery ; a seam or hem would have some little touches of the needle beyond the mere piecing together or turning in of raw edges: from this stage grew the enrichment of hanging or robe for avowedly decorative purposes, but it should be noted that all the decoration had meaning in its beauty. I will not stop here to consider this phrase, which will be referred to later on in discussing the suitability of embroidery to various objects. Well, now-a-days, almost the only article of stitchery in which the two branches of the art, namely, plain sewing and embroidery, are wedded, is in the body-linen of a very fine lady, who loves to accumulate dainty linen round her, fine as gossamer, wrought by what under-paid work-girl she does not know or care. The following lines from a popular fashion-paper describe with unction the beauties of such garments: ' The night-gowns are remarkable for their ex-2 quisite work, the dotting all hand-wrought, the tiny a jour veining appearing between the pleats . . . and so forth ad nauseam. But the hurry of modern life and the advent of cheap machine-work have, between them, done away with any leisurely decorating of garments except for the very rich ; and, as aforesaid, plain-sewing is taught apart from decorative embroidery. The instinctive desire of man to ornament whatever article he makes with his own hand, to place his mark upon his handiwork, leads him to decorate his clothes and other possessions as soon as his primitive wants are assured, and he leaves the first stage of almost unreasoning savagedom. The early Eastern civilisations availed themselves abundantly of this art, and their chronicles record many instances of the skill of Babylonian and Egyptian workers, and of the beauty and costliness of embroidered stuffs made in those countries. Egyptian textiles and needlework were eagerly sought after by other peoples, especially by the Jews and Tyrians. The great merchant-city of Tyre, capital of Phoenicia, ' the renowned city strong in the sea,' was indeed a centre of all the arts, whither treasures and produce of all sorts poured in from every imaginable land. She is threatened with destruction in the height of her prosperity by the prophet Ezekiel, who describes graphically her trade development, and the perfection to which it is brought. With that versatility of a travelled people which made them their renown, the Tyrians assimilated the arts borrowed from Egypt and Babylon, and, among others, the art of embroidery, which was much in demand, being most rich and beautiful, we are told. I must refer, too, to that already often-quoted passage in Exodus about the building of the temple ; where the Jewish tribes doubtless placed, as an offering to their Jehovah, all the precious things they had brought away from that wonderful land, wise in all the arts of life, where they had lived so long. Among these treasures there are beautiful embroideries and cloths of gold, either brought with them or fashioned by themselves through their acquired knowledge ; rich hangings for the tabernacle, a veil for the ark, and robes for the high priest, all wrought with the splendour of colour and wealth of work which Eastern nations still cling to.
Greece and Rome, too, made abundant use of needlework, and hundreds of quotations bearing on the subject could be made from their authors were it within the scope of these pages. But between the poetry of the ancient, and, frankly speaking, conjectural art, and the tangible reality of the mediaeval, classical times lose their interest to a certain extent, and one is glad to turn to a period of that art which repays all thought and search and fills one with joy, to the art of the middle ages, namely, the XII. to XIV. centuries, where everything is instinct with life and originality in the handiwork of man. From these times
(say from the XIV. century until now), the progression is also downwards, with reference to this art at least; and though for a long, long while later professional skill is so well-rooted as to become greenly traditional, design and invention are less markedly beautiful, and the early simplicity slowly gives place to a luxuriance and lavishness that marks the beginning of all decay.
For any one anxious to follow up this line of study in detail, it can be done to a certain extent by merely walking through our South Kensington Museum, to go no further, carefully noting and comparing the fine examples of early work displayed there. The great Syon cope is in itself a master-piece of design and workmanship, and is worked in a peculiar manner, to which I may have occasion to refer in speaking of methods of work. This cope is an often-quoted example, whose history in brief is that it was given by Henry V. to a convent at Isleworth at about the year
1414, though a piece of XIII. century work. The nuns of Syon led a wandering life, and, in Elizabeth's reign, travelling far and wide, finally reached Portugal, where they settled themselves. It is not long since that this their great treasure came back from Lisbon to England, to be wondered at in a dusky corner behind a glass case in a great museum.
It will be noticed that most of the fine early embroideries preserved to us are ecclesiastical, but it is not to be inferred from this that the houses and clothes of our forefathers were as bare of such decoration as our own. They naturally lavished their most costly and effective work on the buildings and vestments dedicated to their religion, but did not themselves, therefore, go without rich ornament. There are existing certain inventories and descriptions of the hangings of hall and bower, cushion coverings and so forth, that give us a delightful glimpse into the interior of a well-to-do house of the middle ages, and of later times also. Loom tapestry was of course often employed for such things, but being essentially laborious and therefore costly, worsted or linen hangings, rather roughly worked, often took its place, and in old inventories we often see such work minutely described. Very gay and pleasant an old hall must have looked on a festival day (and holidays were very many and more generally kept in those days), the rough stone walls hidden nearly roof-high by the warm coloured folds of stuff embroidered with fair roses, or ' portrayed full of woodland trees,' with perhaps a bordering of scrolls and shields with the possessor's device displayed upon them. Window seats and chairs would be fitted with embroidered cushions, screens and settles hung with gay cloths, and even the ' napery' or table-linen would not escape the busily plied needle.
As aforesaid, later work gradually degenerates ; even the splendour of embroidered apparel at the French and English courts under Henry II. and Francis I. and Henry VIII., respectively, verges perilously upon the vulgar in its extravagance. Coats and robes are loaded with work and jewels wherever it is possible to display either, until the unlucky bearers of these stiffly built-up garments look ridiculous far more than magnificent. Very handsome work is, of course, often to be met with at this time, but the tendency, on the whole, is towards display and grandeur, and leaves far distant the repose and gravity of the best times. Thence our glance travels onward until it comes to actual ugliness and vulgarity in the latter half of the XVIII. century - 'the great century,' as people were fond of calling it. But though the rich and important work is displeasing, we find a great deal of modest art that is delightful; flowery cloths and aprons worked by ladies at their leisure, or great bed-quilts and hangings, ingenuous and simple as regards design, but really prettily coloured, and stitched with some art.
So much for a brief glance at the growth of decorative needlework. It may seem at first sight unnecessary, but indeed could not be dispensed with. Even the slight guidance thus afforded as to the periods wherein to look for the best style, in order to study it, is a great help to the student while taste is being formed. Moreover, I find that in most people's minds there exists great confusion as to what is definitely the best work artistically. Few go back beyond the queer jumble of traditional design of the early XVIII. century, or the handsome florid renaissance styles of the XVI. and XVII. centuries, to the simple dignity and graciousness of mediaeval work. It is here, to the Middle Ages, I repeat, the student must go for example and inspiration towards serious work : modern embroidery does not compare favourably with that of any period, but it is the very antithesis to the early art, and it is indeed time that something was done to raise it to a higher level.