Exhibition Overview

The artist selects a colored filament, threads a needle, takes the first stitch in a blank piece of cloth—and the process of artistic creation and transformation begins. Simple materials—thread and cloth—when combined with the artist’s vision and skill produce works that are beautiful, that express ideas, and that convey personal and cultural messages.

Needlework artists, like their artwork, are diverse and individual—whether the artist is an eighteenth-century schoolgirl, a Victorian embroidery artist, a colonial revival needlework designer, a mid-twentieth-century artist, or a contemporary artist. Artist portraits accompanying many of the pieces provide a glimpse of the individual behind the artwork.

Painted with Thread is presented in sections—including schoolgirl needle arts, sailor’s embroidery, embroidery in the home, nature themes, and commemorative embroidery art.

Schoolgirl Needle Arts
School mistresses of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries taught both plain sewing and ornamental embroidery. Ornamental embroidery could be as simple as a floral vine or as elaborate as a large painted and embroidered scene inspired by oil paintings or prints. Intended primarily to teach needlework skills, embroidery also exposed students to design elements and artistic styles of the day.

Sampler, by Sally M. Bowen, ca. 1800, Marblehead, Mass. Silk and linen.

Sailors' Embroidery
At sea—f reed from social constraints that associated sewing with women—British and American sailors of the nineteenth century applied their rudimentary knowledge of sail repair to embroidering ship portraits, called “woolies,” or to embellishing garments and other objects.

Sailor's pants, by unidentified artist on a voyage from New England to the Pacific Ocean. Wool, cotton, linen, and wood.

The Home
“Home Sweet Home” was a common motto in Victorian embroidery art. Encouraged by prevailing mores, women directed their artistic impulses to the home, embellishing and personalizing bed hangings, tablecloths, furniture, upholstery, needlework tools and equipment, and other household textiles. More recent embroidery artworks explore conceptual ideas about domestic life and the home.

Chair with needlework upholstery, Henrietta Augusta (Saunders) Coolidge. ca. 1859, New England, probably Boston. Wool, canvas, and mahogany.

Nature has long inspired embroidery artists. Eighteenth-century Americans adopted the pastoral landscape of English country estates as the embodiment of refinement and gentility. The Victorian “language of flowers”—used to express romantic and sentimental ideals—was used by artists working in all mediums.

Sampler, 1783, by Mary Richardson, Salem, Mass. Silk and linen.

Since the eighteenth century, embroidery has been used to commemorate personal and public figures and events—be it George Washington, a personal family member, or military experiences.

Blanket: Wrapped in My Parents' Love, by Linda Behar. 2000, Wool and cotton.

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