Fun Facts about American Embroidery


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Flowers once conveyed messages. The Victorian convention of assigning meanings or messages to individual flowers—often seen in embroidery art—was used by men as well as women, including artist Winslow Homer. According to this coded language of love, the moss rose meant "superior merit,” while the pansy said “think of me.”

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The embroidery technique known as chenille uses a fuzzy silk thread named after the French word for caterpillar.

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Embroidery holds great personal value. When Anne Gower and her husband John Endicott—governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony—sailed to America in 1628, her needle lace sampler accompanied them. The dearth of space on board the Abigail suggests the value Anne Gower ascribed to the sampler. It is the only surviving sampler known to have been transported toAmerica during seventeenth-century settlement by the British.

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Sailors once practiced embroidery. In the 1800s, British and American sailors, freed from social constraints that associated sewing with women, used their knowledge of sail repair and knotting to embroider ship portraits, called “woolies,” and to embellish garments.

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Gloves—often beautifully embroidered—once held symbolic meaning. In seventeenth-century England and Colonial America, gloves for both men and women were exchanged by nobility as symbols of loyalty, or by families to seal the wedding covenant. At funerals, gloves were offered as expressions of mourning. Decorative or symbolic motifs appear on some of the gloves of this period.

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Embroidery was sometimes added to painted ship portraits. Professional artist Thomas Willes (1850–1912) used embroidery, appliquéd textiles, and painted detail to create ship portraits that at first glance look like oil paintings.

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Needlework skills once signified a good education. The Reverend William Bentley, in 1793 recounting the story of Philip and Mary English and their involvement in the Salem witchcraft trials, wrote: “His wife had the best education of her times. Wrote with great ease & has left a specimen of her needlework” that “…concludes with an Alphabet & her name, in the usual form. The figures are diversified with great ease & proportion, & there are all the stitches known to be then in use.”

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Human hair has been used as embroidery floss. An embroidery work done in memory of Elizabeth Carleton (1762–1801) of Salem includes human hair—possibly that of the deceased.

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Moose hair too has been used as embroidery floss. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Native American artists used moose hair in their embroidery.

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