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.
I’ve worked my tail off to get to this week and finally I’m finished! My collection of vintage pillow covers from the early 1900’s, will hang at the Common Threads Regional Quilt Show, June 21-23, in Wichita, KS. I have a total of 21 in the collection, with many more to complete in the future. This is only the beginning! My husband asked me the other day how many I had. Really, you think a girl counts a collection!!? LOL!
My dear friend, Marla, helped me stitch tabs on each piece for pinning and hanging at the show. Here are a couple of my recent finishes.
Scroll through my website to see more in progress pieces. These are so dear to me. When I quilt them, I can almost feel the original maker working the original embroidery. Hope to see you in Wichita. Holler if you see me walking the aisles!
I’m always asked at a trunk show, “Kelly, what do you plan to do with your pillow covers?” The answer is, show them and share them! I’m obsessed by these beauties! I’ve been collecting them since I found my first Kansas pillow cover about 5 years ago. I can’t really tell you how many I have now because honestly, I don’t know! I’m guessing somewhere between 50-100, ready to be quilted.
They will be seen for the first time in their entirety at the Common Threads Quilt Show, in Wichita, KS, June 21-23, 2018. I’m hoping to have 20-25 in the collection. I’m madly working on them until that show, so we’ll see how far into the stash I can get. This is what the banner looks like that I ordered on Vistaprint. I love how it turned out! But………..
Apparently, they are sending this gentleman to hold the sign at the show!! I’m totally excited about that! Isn’t that kind? Unfortunately, he didn’t show up in the banner shipment. Maybe I need to make a call?
Here are a few more I’ve finished this year and I’ll continue to stitch until they need to travel to Wichita. I’ll be there hanging out with friends, so look me up if you attend the show. They will have 750 hanging quilts!!! I can hardly wait to go. It’ll take me 2 days just to get through those quilts. Enjoy!!
I love to find these beautiful, vintage pillow covers. They tend to be about 100 years old and created in the early 1900’s during an era called, Society Silk. Many of these use silk floss and came in a kit with a pre-tinted linen, just as our kits come today. What makes these very special to me are the quirky sayings and silk threads that were used. I quilt these on a Handi Quilter Fusion, longarm.
This the the original cover. I removed the backing, which was a depression era, green linen.
I’m pretty sure the maker would be mortified if she knew she missed a spot. The magenta stitch is hers, the satin stitching would have gone over it to give some padding.
When placing designs on cloth, I use a blue, water soluble pen. I only make registration marks and try to do the smallest bit of them. A great tip for removing the blue marks, mix 1 heaping teaspoon of baking soda to one cup of water. Put in a spray bottle and marks disappear, forever! At least I’ve had no reappearing marks since I’ve used this method!
I usually don’t have a big plan for these pieces until I begin them. I let them ‘talk’ to me while I stitch and they usually SCREAM at some point! 😉
I use my rulers for all straight lines. The longer one is great for ditch stitching and long runs and then the smaller, Palm ruler, is super for short lengths.
The maker on this piece did some luscious embroidery!
I use these notched rulers for guiding me around the embroidery.
Viola’! Another great finish! I adore these pieces and hope you’ve enjoyed the beauty and re-purpose also!
I was thrilled for my first entry EVER to win a 2nd place ribbon over the weekend! What a treat! Entered in the new, VINTAGE category, at UQSM, in Sandy, UT.
The front quilting really created a wholecloth on the back of the quilt. LOVE IT!
And that second green ribbon? Even more super thrilled because it was for, “Teacher of the Year”! Let’s just say I had a great weekend! Thanks to all of you who follow my journey!
“Champagne and Caviar”, is the title I’ve given to this spectacular quilt! It began as a 100 year old, silk embroidered tablecloth, purchased from an estate sale. Unfortunately, I have no information about the maker, who is the major artist on this work!
This tablecloth was incredible when I found it! Exquisite handwork comprised of drawn thread work and a padded satin stitch using silk thread. Seriously incredible because the maker essentially DOUBLE embroidered this piece. First, with a white cotton floss to create a trapunto effect, then she stitched over the first embroidery with silk floss. Of course, pictures don’t do it justice. I will hope you might see it in person someday!
To begin this quilt, which is 75″ square, I stitched around every bit of embroidery and thread work. I backed the entire piece with white satin to give it a subtle sheen. I used the new Glide Cream color, 60 weight thread for the outlining. It’s a great super fine, polyester thread. There is a double batting in this quilt, Hobbs Heirloom 80/20 on the bottom and Hobbs 100% wool on the top. This gives the quilt fabulous loft and a trapunto effect.
I started in the middle, knowing this focal point would be an important part of the quilt. I used Handi Quilters’ Preview Paper, which is a sturdy, clear plastic to audition and play with designs. I also used Cindy Needham’s Ultimate Stencil to plan out the middle. You can see what I decided on in the next photo.
I worked different areas of this quilt depending on each days’ mood! I stayed on this for over a month, maybe 250 hours, which is really impressive if you know me! I get tired of working on the same thing and often hop from project to project. This was actually fun and I could hardly wait to get up every morning and work on something different.
At one point I realized I would need to start doing some embellishing as I quilted, so that I would make a show deadline. Yikes! Thank goodness I use Red Snappers, which made the loading process take just a few minutes each morning. I spent my evenings beading and my days, quilting!
Maybe the most difficult decision I had, was to eliminate some of the makers’ embroidery. It was the only part of this pristine piece that had some wear. I either had to repair the work that was missing or take it out completely. I spent many evenings taking out her work, which made me feel terrible. Once the quilt was finished, I loved that I made that decision!
A few more pictures of my process. This quilt is off to the Utah Quilting and Sewing Marketplace show in Sandy, Utah. It can be seen live and in person from May 4-6 at the South Towne Expo Center. Later this summer, it will hang at the Kansas City Regional Quilt Festival, held June 15-17, in Overland Park, KS. Finally, it will hang in an exhibit titled, “Gilding the Lily-Embroidery In Quilts Past and Present”, at the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts. This is the exhibit it was created for. I’m so excited to show her off and particularly the historical value associated with this one of a kind piece. I’ve never seen anything quite like it!
This quilt is something I consider to be my masterpiece, as I wonder if I will ever have the patience to work on something so intricate again. I am beyond thrilled with the final product! I hope you enjoy this quilt in pictures and especially if you are able to view it in person. Yes, it is hard to believe that someone actually did all of this by hand, especially in our modern day world of machines. It was created in a simpler time, where TV and computers did not exist, when women used their spare time to perfect the handwork that they had learned from generations before. I also respect the imperfections and the fact that this piece is not square. I couldn’t bring myself to trim any part of this tablecloth and kept the shape as I found it. Maybe the maker is looking down on me and deciding that my quilting brought her work to another level, I hope so!
Thanks for visiting!
I have TUBS of linens and embroideries! One of my good friends, Shelley, mailed me this linen she found in an antique store recently. This did not get to the tub! I was compelled to stitch it the day I got it, but oogled over it for a few weeks before loading on the longarm. Originally, this was a 100ish year old pillow cover.
Having found a few of these, they date somewhere between 1900-1920. They were pre-printed/tinted pillow covers and were dyed in the areas where you would stitch. Some ladies chose to embroider the whole area, while others did smaller areas, leaving some of the printed colors showing. A few companies that produced these were Richardson’s, Royal Society and Vogart. I love when the selvage has the name of the maker as it can also give me clues to the date of the embroidery. This one did not have that information.
This treasure had quite a few stains when I received it, but I’m never bothered by smell or stains as I’ve experimented plenty with great results. My favorite cleaner is called Retro Clean. It is a powder that is dissolved in warm water for best results. You can find it in antique shops and quilt stores, also on the internet. I soaked this piece for 24 hours and it sparkled when it dried! The heavy stains were gone and it brightened the linen considerably.
I always begin by basting around the edge of the entire piece. I work like that is my frame. Then I stitch around all of the embroidery, as you would stitch in the ditch around applique. I use my very favorite palm size ruler to use as resistance against the hopping foot to guide the machine.
Once I have all of the outlining done, the fun begins! I did a very small fill in the center and the outside felt like it needed some flowing feathers to move with the stalks of what I think may be milo. I’m pretty sure I created the movement I wanted.
I always begin with what the linen is “telling” me. They don’t all speak the same way, but I definitely get a feeling from each one. The density of the french knots made me start with the pebbles and spirals in the center. YES, those are all french knots! The trapunto effect was caused naturally by using two layers of batting, 80/20 Hobbs Heirloom on the bottom and 100% Hobbs wool on top. This double batting will cause some drag on the machine when starting, but the effects are dramatic!
I made sure to work the feathers into the same direction as the stalks of milo. Beginning with a spine to follow that line, I worked the feathers right up to the original embroidery.
What was I thinking when I made a 1/2″ grid! It was a bit tedious, but the end result is fantastic! This ruler is so great for small areas. For design purposes, I often balance straight lines and circular forms. You don’t want too much of anything!
I can’t decide which is my favorite, the checkerboard or the feathers!
AAAAAAND the almost finish! I can’t ever wait to share these things, so no binding yet. For traveling purposes, I’ll put a tiny binding on so it lays flat in my suitcase! Have a fabulous weekend folks!
I bought this beautiful, framed silk embroidery, last week on a trip to Maine. It was purchased at Liberty Tool, in Liberty, Maine. I was even able to take it to a free appraisal day at an auction house in a neighboring town. The few things I know, the embroidery dates to about 1850, the frame to 1902. Thankfully, framing kept it clean and in great shape. However, the lack of acid free mounting has made it very fragile. This is how I found it.
I plan to re-frame and enjoy it’s beauty. No quilting of this piece! Now, the mystery. I have had it on my Facebook page, out to many foreign friends, and no one can exactly distinguish the word or origin. The appraiser thought it could be Asian stitched, the possible middle word, “dai”, is possibly Japanese detection, says Google. I’ve asked Mary Corbet, who has inquired with other embroidery experts, with no answers. She thought it might be Thai.
We removed it from the frame and now I am enjoying the beauty before I frame it again. My question to you is, what does it say? Is it a surname, a warm welcome, a brand, a first name? The stitching is amazing. The individual who embroidered this would have spent a lot of hours stitching, so maybe it was a gift. Following are some close up pictures in varying light. The last image has been photoshopped in black and white. That may help you distinguish the letters. I’ve looked at it every day for a week and still am not 100% sure!
Thanks in advance if you spend time on this puzzle! The unknown is driving me and a few others, crazy!
***A HUGE thank you to Kathy, a follower here who emailed me last night. After recognizing the origin, she sent a photo to a Greek cousin, who in turn took it to her Greek church festival yesterday! It is Greek and translates to, “this too shall pass”!!! Which, by the way, is my mantra! There could be nothing more perfect than this saying for me. I’ll be framing it soon and enjoy it’s original beauty! Thanks to all of you who attempted the puzzle 🙂
I can’t tell you how mesmerized I was by this next piece! A thoughtful friend from my quilt guild had asked me to come over and go through her linens. I brought home a variety of things, but this one was almost jumping on the frame to be quilted! Here we go with the transformation.
The large society silk was beautiful to begin with, as were its matching coasters. The piece is 18″ in diameter with the smaller rounds at 5″. At first, I thought I might collage them, but then decided that might be color overload. I’m glad I kept them as individuals.
On top of the backing I stack 80/20 Hobbs Heirloom batting, and then on top of that is Hobbs 100% wool. That combination of batting always gives a nice trapunto look to anything! There’s also some excess fabric in the middle of this piece, so the double batting will help fill that space.
Next, I stitch a regular line of stitching on the inside edge of the blanket stitched outer edge. This will really tighten the whole thing and allow me to work the inside.
You can already see the difference in the middle! Now I’m ready to outline. For me, this is the most tedious and lengthy process, especially on this heavily embroidered piece.
OH, let’s talk about thread for a minute! I have SO many shades of “linen” Glide thread. I think each time I order I get 5 new colors! Old linens take on so many different colors over time. I always audition a few before I get started.
And the winner is, Glide, Warm Grey! I almost didn’t get into the grey drawer, but it turned out to best for this linen.
I like to start with my focus design in the middle and then work out. I rarely use marking pens, but will put on a few registration dots with a purple invisible pen. This one began with a circle and then I worked the feathers around it and into the areas of embroidery. Once that’s done, I start to use a small fill design.
This fill is a combination of tiny circles and very fine stippling. I love the density! It makes the embroidery pop even more than the original and I like for the makers work to really stand out.
There you have it! This was about 4 hours on the frame, mostly because of the amount of outlining around so much embroidery.
I was so thankful for the gift and wanted to do something special for Catherine, who sweetly let them go. I decided to quilt one of the coasters. I used the same process, but used some very tiny quilting. I mounted it on acid free mat board with spray baste, matted and then framed.
I took it to my guild meeting yesterday, so now Catherine has a “mini me”! I love the end result of both of these pieces. I will also mat and frame the larger piece when I find the right frame. I always hope the maker would be proud and enjoy the final destination of her beautiful work!
Last month I was gifted a beautiful society silk piece by Cindy Needham. She was letting go of a few linens and asked if I would like one. How could I refuse an offer like that? What a treat! I love this squishy kind of mail!
I was determined to get it quilted and not let it get lost in my mound of linens.
This round is about 18″ in diameter. The handwork is stunning and very precise. I gave it a very light ironing on the back and then on to the long arm.
I like to use a double batting of 80/20 Hobbs Heirloom on the bottom and Hobbs Wool on the top. This gives the piece a really nice loft.
The first task is to stitch down the outer edge. It’s almost like making a frame for the inside stitching. I go really slow with my fingers, usually way to close to the hopping foot!
The beginning is overwhelming with “fluff”. Due to that double batting, the machine tends to drag a bit until more stitching is done. I like to outline the embroidery next to pull down that crazy pouf!
You can see I stitch right up to the edge of the embroidery. I had the hubs video what my hand and ruler placement look like while doing this. Not the clearest video, but you’ll get the idea! I hold a long arm ruler, any straight edge you like, next to the foot with my left hand, while guiding the machine with my right hand. The ruler is only for resistance, don’t use it for pushing. Try to use that right hand to do all the maneuvering.
This particular pattern is called, “Branson”, by Helen Squire. I knew I wanted to wrap some feathers around something. I liked the small swirls, also knowing I might repeat some swirls in my feather frenzy! You might be able to see that I also took my fingernail and made an impression in the fabric. I do very little marking on these vintage pieces, not knowing what might happen to them 50 years from now. I could see 3 definite areas I wanted to work in. You might be able to see that from this view.
I first stitch my spines for the three feather areas. I was on such a roll that I didn’t stop to get a picture of spines only. Sometimes it’s hard to stop the groove!
Then I started to fill with feathers! Feathers flow, once you practice enough to get their rhythm. I used pebbles and swirls for filler. A friend on my Facebook page said it looked like a merry-go-round. I agree!
Once I had the middle where I liked it, I moved on to the outer edge. I like to use repetition to unify any kind of quilting. You can see the outer crosshatch in the original embroidery. I loved it and decided to continue that design element.
This was the most tedious part of this whole piece! Lots of ruler work. My curved template is something the hubs cut for me last year. He had some extra plexiglass and then used a hole saw to add some circles. Not often do I require an exact circle, but when I do I simply lift my hopping foot inside the size circle I need.
OH, and what to do with the edge, you ask? It will depend on the end use, but this one I plan to mat and frame, so I trim to the edge on the back side.
A few hours later you have the finish! I also did some micro stippling for filler. Cindy calls this “sand”. I use Glide thread exclusively because I like the sheen it has. It compliments the silk embroidery nicely.
You can see how nicely the computerized motif in the center works into the free motion quilting work. I enjoy mixing up the computer work and my own quilting.
I hope you have enjoyed the process and will give it a go yourself! I love to encourage and inspire you to use those linens that past generations have lovingly stitched and left behind. Most are hidden away in drawers and attics and I’d like to get them out, one piece at a time! Thanks for visiting and don’t forget to check out Cindy’s free form quilting classes on Craftsy. Click on the banner at the top and search Cindy Needham. She’ll show you how to create free form stitching on a domestic machine if you aren’t a long arm owner. She is AMAZING!!