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 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 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!!
I am seriously obsessed! I love these vintage society silk embroidered pieces and had the perfect gift in mind when I found this special linen from my favorite KS Ebay seller! I use them right from the package, knowing that once the quilting is finished, the creases will never show.
The next step is basting around the edges. I keep my fingers really close to the hopping foot to get right inside the outer edge of embroidery. I probably wouldn’t suggest this to everyone, it’s tricky!
I use two layers of batting, 80/20 Hobbs Heirloom on the bottom and 100% Hobbs wool on the top. This gives the piece a nice “pouf” and will automatically look like trapunto!
I also do a quick sketch in my notebook. I am not one to sketch on the piece, not knowing what our high tech pens will do in the long run. I do love the purple air pens for a few registration marks, but that’s about it! So yes, it is all free form and free motion quilting!
The finish! These are “squeeze” pieces between large customer quilts and only take a few hours. I never know what they will look like when finished. I have some focus area in my mind and take off from there! I also sewed in my name and did use the purple pen for that. I didn’t trust my free motion on letters. A few close ups are next!
This piece had a few small stains. Probably no one else would see them, but I would always know they are there. I took an afternoon to soak the finished piece in Retro Clean, out on the patio in the super sunlight. It turned out sparkling white and the silk embroidery isn’t affected at all.
The big question now is “how do you finish?” I trim to the back edge, mount on acid free matboard, cut a mat and frame!
My mom followed my progress on Facebook on this piece and loved it! So glad, since she got it for her 75th birthday yesterday 😉 Finished frame size is 18″ x 24″. Hope you enjoyed the journey!
Beautiful on my mom’s wall!
I hardly ever have a chance to quilt for myself, so I decided it was time for a small linen. I started with a 34″ square, drawn thread linen piece from my stash.
I’m so glad I have this wrinkled before shot so you can see the magic that happens. Next, I chose this great “silk society” round (about 10″ in diameter), that I had found in an antique shop.
I always try to do a quick sketch of my plan. Trust me, it’s nothing fancy!
Then the magic begins! I may put in a few registration lines with a blue, water erasable pen, and then I start quilting. I first attached the round embroidered piece in the center by quilting around the edges and outlining the butterfly/heart motifs. I didn’t want to compromise the piece too much, so I kept it simple. The initials in the middle are amazingly stitched and I wanted them to really stand on their own! Those ladies of yesteryear were meticulous in their stitching. I can’t stop admiring the handwork!
Underneath the drawn threadwork I placed a piece of gold lame to make it really pop! The silk embroidery is so pronounced and I wanted to compliment the golds in the thread.
After 10 hours of quilting, here is the big TA-DA!! I cannot tell you how pleased I am with this beauty!
OH, don’t forget the stitched butterflies! These are very subtle, but I like to mimic something from the original linen and this was perfect!
I finished this with an ivory satin binding, added a few crystals and viola!! Enjoy!
I found this antique pillow cover in my favorite central Kansas antique shop last spring, D. Palma & Co. Mercantile. I fell in love with it! A huge thanks to my cousin, Bonnie Fisher, who had found it in the first place and had it in her booth.
It is hand embroidered with silk floss, which gives it that nice sheen. A great example of an early 1900’s art embroidery. At first glance you might think that the word, KANSAS, is in two different colors, but actually the red floss has worn off over the years, revealing the thread underneath.
It has a few stains, but once I quilted it they all but disappeared!!
As a Kansas girl, this will be my forever treasure! A brand new look to a piece that could have been lost. What would the maker think of it now? I hope she would be pleased!