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Threaded Adornment: Four Centuries of English Embroidery

July 10, 2010 - July 31, 2011

Embroidery has been used to embellish costumes and textiles for more than 3,000 years. Some of the finest embroideries were produced in England from 900 to 1500. Opulent examples known as opus anglicanum (Latin for "English work") were made for ecclesiastical and secular use. Esteemed for their finely executed stitches and luxurious materials, they are considered the pinnacle of European embroidery and were sought after by Europe's religious leaders and royalty.

After opus anglicanum, England continued to produce superb embroideries, often used as subtle displays of wealth and status. By the sixteenth century, embroidery was considered essential to a well-to-do girl's education; not only did it help refine needlework skills, but, as evidenced by the embroidered letters, phrases, and verses found on samplers, it also taught literacy. Affluent ladies enjoyed embroidering in their free time, and the activity, as well as the large number of works they produced, affirmed their leisured existence. The successful completion of embroideries demonstrated that a young woman was "accomplished" and properly prepared for her domestic and social duties.

English embroideries also reflected contemporary social and aesthetic developments. Religious reformation is reflected in sixteenth-century domestic objects and textiles that feature adaptations of religious designs, and seen in the subdued ecclesiastical embroideries of the nineteenth century. Similarly, the influence of Eastern culture on Western design is apparent in embroidered household textiles from the eighteenth century, while the motifs found on some nineteenth-century embroideries highlight the triumph of industrialization.

This concise exhibition presents nine examples of English embroidery from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century.

Main Building


Laura Camerlengo, Curatorial Fellow, Costume and Textiles

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