What is Society Silk Embroidery?
I speak often about the embroidery termed, Society Silk. What is it and what does it refer to? I’ve collected quite a treasure trove of linens, but I always come back to these, delicate and finely stitched by women of a by gone era. I’ll share a few of my favorites. Beware, they are not pressed and lovely, YET! Shown as found, usually in antique stores or many times, gifted to me by dear friends.
The Society Silk style of embroidery began as a past time in England long before it came to America. For some women, it eventually became a way to earn a living from home. Perhaps the original American cottage industry, fine silk embroideries could be produced at home and then sold as lots to linen houses for sale in a wider market. “Society silk” is a popular reference to the Royal Society of Embroidery that produced the silk floss, embroidery patterns and promoted the cottage embroidery of finer pieces. Additionally, they promoted embroidery “clubs” that brought friendly competition between members to produce the finest work. This beautiful piece of embroidery came from that period and represents the very best of technique, materials and design.
Royal Society was not a company, it was a trademarked brand name for needlework patterns and supplies owned by the H.E. Verran Company of New York. The company was incorporated in October of 1912, shortly after the silk art embroidery craze fell out of popularity. The company ceased operations in 1930.
Also termed, Art Embroidery, Art Needlework, Kensington Embroidery and Silk Embroidery, Society Silk was also known as “Fancy Work”. In the nineteenth century, any decorative work created for ornament had these names, since they were the opposite of “plain sewing”.
A common myth is that this beautiful type of embroidery was only done by wealthy, society women. Those that could afford the silk and linen, with servants doing their housework. Actually, what seems more the reality, is that silk embroidery was introduced in America to help those women who had an economic need. Imagine, at the end of the Civil War, how many women were left without husbands, fathers, brothers and sons to support them. The upper and middle class Victorian ladies were thrown into a difficult situation–no income, no skills, no options for training. It was an unwritten rule that these women did not work outside the home.
Enter Candace Wheeler, who in 1877, formed the Society of Decorative Art, in New York City. She began this cottage industry to help these women learn an art form that could be created without leaving their homes. Mrs. Wheeler also began numerous auxiliary Societies all over America and Canada.
At this time, instruction books became popular and embroidery clubs were popular places for women to meet and socialize. Women who excelled in embroidery, often became traveling embroidery teachers.
Now, not all pieces with silk floss are considered Society Silk. The Art Embroidery phenomenon is only present in the years 1877-1912 in America.
Personally, the best part of this story, is that women could be trained to use artistic needlework to make a respectable living. Exactly what many of us have accomplished in this career of quilting, sewing, crafting and creating.
I have made it my mission to take the beauty of a long ago makers’ handwork and bring it into the 21st century. Can you even imagine what she would think of this world and our fancy machines? Most of my Society Silk pieces will eventually be framed for everyone to enjoy. I like being part of a 100+ year old story!
This last piece was free motion quilted onto Dupioni red silk. The doily measures about 10″ round. The framed piece is about 17″ square. It now resides in the home of a dear friend.
The next question is usually, do you sell these? The answer is, not yet! I’ve given them for silent auctions, given them to friends, and carry them with me on my speaking travels and trunk shows. I like them to be seen and enjoyed, as well as an inspiration to those of you who have these types of linens. Bring them out of their drawers and hiding places. Let everyone enjoy the amazing handwork of women!
To read more about Silk Embroidery, check out the book, “Silk Art Embroidery: A Women’s History of Ornament & Empowerment”, by Donna Cardwell. Much of my information comes from this book, as not much is written about this needle art form.