Tag Archives: ethnic embroidery

Embroidered Peasant Styles from the Nineteen Twenties

White linen vintage dress with blue embroidery and cutwork, mid-nineteen twenties.

White linen vintage dress with blue embroidery and cutwork, mid-nineteen twenties.

Dresses from the 1910s and 1920s were often ornamented with embroidery and beading, even for daytime wear. Just as there was a strong interest in ethnic clothing and crafts in the nineteen sixties and seventies, some women appreciated folk embroidery and embellishment ninety years ago. The style was not limited to “artistic” or eccentric dressers; “peasant” blouse and dress patterns were offered by mainstream companies. I was lucky enough to photograph the 1920s peasant dresses that follow while making an inventory of a friend’s collection. [I wish now that I had had time to take better pictures!]

Peasant Blouse and Dress Patterns, 1925

Here are some Butterick “peasant” patterns from 1925:

May 1925: blouse trimmed with smocking and embroidery, from Butterick’s Delineator magazine.

May 1925: blouse trimmed with smocking and embroidery, from Butterick’s Delineator magazine.

Embroidery transfer #10341 for the blouse shown above.

Embroidery transfer #10341 for the blouse shown above.

Butterick sold sewing patterns and also sold embroidery and beading transfers.

“#10341: You get several trimming combinations in this embroidery, for after you have finished trimming your peasant blouse with the cross-stitched bandings and motifs, you can use the one-stitch banding in bright wools down the front of your wool jersey sports frock…. The one-stitch banding may combine different bright colors in wools…. It can be adapted to 1 5/8 yard each of bandings 4 ½ inches wide, 2 ½ inches wide, 1 5/8 inch wide and 1 3/4 inch wide and 32 assorted motifs.”

Butterick blouse pattern #5903. Here it is shown embroidered in red and worn under a black "suspender skirt." May, 1925.

Butterick blouse pattern #5903. On the right, it is shown embroidered in red — or red and black — and worn under a black “suspender skirt.” May, 1925.

These smocked peasant dresses from the same issue (May, 1925) have a strong relationship to the embroidered vintage dress pictured below. Smocking is a peasant embellishment technique originally used on shepherd’s smocks.

Peasant dress patterns # 6006, for ladies 32"- 40" bust, and #6012, for Misses 16 to 20 years. 1925.

Peasant dress patterns # 6006, for ladies 32″- 40″ bust, and #6012, for Misses 16 to 20 years. 1925.

“#6006: One-piece dresses in peasant style are very cool and dainty for Summer and one of the smartest new fashions…. Many attractive color combinations are possible, for instance, on a white frock the smocking may be done in red, lavender, yellow and black.”

Embroidery on Two Vintage Twenties Dresses

The subtler color palette of this vintage peasant dress, in sheer cotton, is very attractive:

1920s smocked dress in sheer cotton, with embroidered front.

1920s smocked dress in sheer cotton, with embroidered front.

Detail of front and back

Detail of front and back

V098 smocking detail

This white linen dress with marine blue embroidery and cutwork is more clearly inspired by ethnic embroidery. [I imagine it being worn by a 1920s tourist visiting the Greek islands with parasol in one hand and sketchbook in the other. I dimly remember a similar dress being used in the movie Carrington (1995), based on the life of painter Dora Carrington.]

Front and side views of a vintage white linen embroidered dress, 1920s.

Front and side views of a vintage white linen embroidered dress, 1920s.

PHOTO  This dress, which was in the collection of a friend, had blue crocheted loops and blue crocheted buttons along the collar and neck opening. I photographed it first over a pale peach slip, to show the beautiful openwork patterns:V093 front embroidery detail 500

And again over a navy blue slip, which gives it more dimension. V093 embroiderd cutwork on navy slip 500

Considering the amazing things that can be done with computerized sewing machines and soluble stabilizers, I suppose it would be possible to duplicate these dresses today without the many, many hours of handwork that made the originals so wonderful. But it would still be quite a project!

 

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Filed under 1900s to 1920s, 1920s, Dresses, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing, Vintage patterns

A Costumer’s Bookshelf: Woman’s Work: the First 20,000 Years

Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, 1994. ISBN 0-393-03506-0

My definition of a classic book is that the book seems to grow with you. Every time you read it, you notice things that seemed unimportant on your previous readings. Of course, the book doesn’t change; a classic is just so rich in ideas that, as you, the reader, learn and grow, more of what’s there becomes relevant to your new experiences.

I’ve just read Women’s Work for the fourth time. I had to use a library copy, because, although I’ve bought the paperback several times, I always end up giving it to another costumer, or a textile artist, or someone who’s interested in women’s studies or archeology or mythology or ethnic embroidery or…. This book covers a lot of ground.

Elizabeth Wayland Barber is a woman archeologist. She realized that the work women have done since pre-historic times usually involves textiles, but, because cloth is perishable, and looms made of wood are perishable, as are wooden distaffs and spindles, the huge contribution that textiles made to ancient economies has been overlooked by [mostly male] archeologists.

Vase, 560 BC, showing vertical loom & loom weights in use. Illustration from Women's Work of a vase in the Metropolitan Museum.

Vase, 560 BC, showing vertical loom & loom weights in use. Illustration from Women’s Work of a vase in the Metropolitan Museum.

Thousands and thousands of loom weights have been found at Troy and other ancient sites where vertical looms were used. (Loom weights are made of non-perishable clay or stone.) But when Troy  or Knossos or Kültepe burned, so did the looms and the textiles that were part of their treasures.

I am simplifying here, but Barber’s point is that half of the products, and at least half of the objects that determined the ancient world’s trade and economy, have disappeared from the historical record – the half that was women’s work.

Textiles: Traditionally Women’s Work

Barber explains that spinning and weaving were tasks compatible with child-minding, while hunting and herding large animals were not.

“Among the thousands of archeologists who have written about pottery or architecture, how many have actually tried to make a pot or build a building? Precious few….” she writes on page 24.

But Barber taught herself to spin and weave so that she could analyze ancient textiles – even reproducing some – to get insight into the differences in societies that lead to different kinds of looms and spindles, etc. A nomadic society, for instance, can’t use a loom that hangs on the wall and uses loom weights for tension on the warp, so archeological evidence of their textile work rarely survives. We know about horizontal Egyptian looms primarily because of wall paintings and models left in tombs; archeologists didn’t need to find piles of loom weights to know that the Egyptians produced vast amounts of cloth.

Things I never really thought about until I read this book:

1. Thread. Fiber. String.

"Needle netted linen bag with stone button. thought to be a ceremonial hat and thus the oldest preserved clothing." From Israel, 6500 BC. (drawing from Women's Work by Tamar Schick.)

“Needle netted linen bag with stone button. thought to be a ceremonial hat and thus the oldest preserved clothing.” From Israel, 6500 BC. (drawing from Women’s Work by Tamar Schick.) Click to enlarge.

On vacation years ago, I was hiking along the Welsh border. Small clumps of white stuff drifted across the road and were caught in the hedges. I stopped to read a map, alone – I thought – and a voice on the other side of the tall hedge cried, “Maa!”  There was a flock of sheep on the other side of the hawthorn bushes, and that white stuff caught on the branches was wool. I was in the position of some paleolithic woman or man who, more clever that I am, gathered some of the animal hair or plant fibers she found, twisted them in her fingers, added more, twisted them together, and invented string or thread.

Drawing from Women's Work by Barber, after Glory

Drawing from Women’s Work by Barber, after Glory

2. Textiles were necessary for trade.

Archeologists find non-perishable items like obsidian, pottery, tin, gold, ax-heads and knives, beads, beakers, and statuettes – trade items that show us how far pre-historic people traveled and how wide-spread and interlinked ancient societies were. But a pack animal can carry only so much metal or stone. Textiles are lighter; they can be used to wrap the precious metals and objects and then sold or traded at the end of the journey.  “The records tell us that one particular donkey [that left Assyria] carried twenty-six cloths of two sorts, sixty-five units of sealed tin, and nine units of loose tin [used to pay for expenses on the way.]”  An ancient letter written from a trader to his wife says, “If you don’t manage to make fine textiles [in time for the caravan], … Buy [them] for me and send [them] to me.” (pp. 170 -171)

3. The Iliad, the Odyssey, and the ancient Greek plays confirm the economic importance of women’s textile work.

A Spinster. "Woman spinning with a drop spindle, depicted on a Greek vase of ca. 490 B.C." From Women's Work, by E. W. Barber

A Spinster. From Women’s Work, by E. W. Barber

At the end of a war, the losers were killed or enslaved.  Numerous female slaves were needed because it takes much longer to spin the thread for a garment than it does to weave the cloth – “as much as seven to ten times as long, using a hand spindle.” (P. 87) “Spinsters” were especially valuable prizes of war.

4. Textiles are part of our language and proverbs. “Spinster.” “On the Distaff side.” “Cut your coat to suit your cloth.” “Man must work from sun to sun, but woman’s work is never done.” That was literally true. A woman can spin thread while walking, while ‘resting,’ and even in the near-darkness of a fire-lit hut or cave. A woman would spin day and night for most of the year in order to have enough thread to weave cloth for her family: that was woman’s work.

You don’t have to know anything about textiles or archeology before reading Women’s Work. Barber’s writing is scholarly, but never stuffy or condescending. There are plenty of illustrations from Egyptian, early European, and Middle Eastern cultures, and a wealth of odd facts about everything from Egyptian eye makeup to “dragon’s blood” dye.

Every time I read Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, I enjoy it. I learn from it. It’s a classic.

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