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.

A basket of Roses, my most prized piece of Society Silk

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.

Roses and flowers were popular subject matter

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”.

Strawberries were another popular subject

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.

Finely stitched holly and berries

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.

Look at those butterflies!

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.

There is often a ‘sheen’ to the silk work

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.

More strawberries, these are padded!

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!

Free motion quilted on a long arm

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!

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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.

Comments

  1. Leave a Reply

    Dorothy McPhail
    April 4, 2019

    You are unbelievably talented and really the pictures do not do your work justice. Seeing it in person when you were here in Sudbury was absolutely the best. Thank you for sharing your work.

    • Leave a Reply

      Kelly
      April 4, 2019

      Thanks so much Dorothy! I had SUCH a great Canadian tour! 😉

  2. Leave a Reply

    Elizabeth Janzen
    April 4, 2019

    Hi Kelly. Thanks for your thoughtful notes on these beautiful antique/vintage pieces. Stitching (quilting, boutis, embroidery,etc.) is my passion, and learning the history & provenance of a technique make the craft so much more valuable. I have a credenza full of vintage embroidery pieces and laces that never see the light of day, many made by my ancestors. One of these years I will follow your inspiration and honour my pieces in the same way.

    • Leave a Reply

      Kelly
      April 4, 2019

      Thanks Elizabeth. I love knowing as much as I can about what I am working on. One day I hope you will!

  3. Leave a Reply

    Delina Aberle
    April 4, 2019

    Great article! I’m always on the look out for them in antique stores but have not found any recently. Thank you for sharing your stash with us!

    • Leave a Reply

      Kelly
      April 4, 2019

      You are welcome! That’s about 1/64th of my stash, yikes!! 😉

  4. Leave a Reply

    Mary Anderson
    April 4, 2019

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I am also on the look out for these beauties and have yet to find any. One day I will hit the jackpot and find some. Your work is beautiful!

    • Leave a Reply

      Kelly
      April 4, 2019

      Thanks Mary, they are fun to find!!

  5. Leave a Reply

    Julie Beard
    April 4, 2019

    Perhaps one day I might be as good as you, Kelly! But for now, I will have to be satisfied with being as good as you in only my dreams! You do inspire me, Kelly. With your wonderful traditional take on the finished look and item. Just simply stunning!

    • Leave a Reply

      Kelly
      April 5, 2019

      Thanks Julie, you are sweet, but it’s all possible. Just takes practice and a vision for what can be done!

  6. Leave a Reply

    Gina Milano
    April 5, 2019

    Although I have not machine quilted vintage linens (a future goal) I have ‘honored’ them for many years by re-purposing them as labels on my quilts.

  7. Leave a Reply

    Martha Senne
    March 31, 2020

    Thank you for this article. I had no idea what these pieces were called but my Grandmother made them and I have 10 or so pieces that I found in my mothers dresser when she died. You didn’t mention but the thing I noticed the most it that not only are they exquisite on the front, the back side is just as beautiful and fully finished. My largest piece is about 2 1/2 feet across and fully padded. I just can’t imagine the number of hours spent and so beautiful, not a stitch out of place. Grandma was a true artisan. The pieces were stored in a dresser that was not protected from mice etc for several years before I found them. They are pretty badly stained and I have been afraid to touch them. I would love to know what to use to get them back. I went to the Kansas State University clothing specialist and she suggested that I soak them in cold water and set them in the sun. I have been afraid to try it as she said it could fade the silk colors. Do you have any suggestions for me in how to clean them? Thank you. Martha

    • Leave a Reply

      Kelly
      March 31, 2020

      Hi Martha, yes the back is as beautiful as the front!! You can soak them in a product called Retro Clean, which can be found on Amazon. I also use color catchers by Shout, when I soak one. Follow directions on the Retro Clean. It is heat activated, so I soak in a glass bowl and microwave the water every 2 hours or so. Then yes, put out on the green grass, if possible, to dry for a day. The chlorophyll from the grass mixed with the sunshine, will whiten and brighten any fabric. No worries about fading, it’s not long enough in the sun to do that. I’ve always had great results. Try one and see how it goes. Good luck. Here is the link for the Retro Clean. Retro Clean

  8. Leave a Reply

    Martha Senne
    March 31, 2020

    Thank you, I’ll be sure to try this as soon as the grass gets greener. Thanks so much for the help. Martha

  9. Leave a Reply

    out site
    June 2, 2020

    I like this pattern. It looks very neat and accurately made. May I please see the wrong side? I want to understand how it looks like.

    • Leave a Reply

      Kelly
      June 7, 2020

      I don’t have a picture of the opposite side right now, but it looks exactly like the front, believe it or not!

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