The Pleasures of Handwork

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The vintage table scarf has an unusual floral design, done in shades of gold using a satin stitch with black outlining. Photo: William Wright

The vintage table scarf has an unusual floral design, done in shades of gold using a satin stitch with black outlining. Photo: William Wright

Stitchery and stenciling enlivened Arts & Crafts table linens, pillows, bed covers, and curtains.

Elements of a decorating aesthetic from a simpler time, embroidery, appliqué, and stencils nevertheless look fresh and bright in modern interiors. Stitchery was done on slightly rough, natural fabrics including unbleached linen, and hand-worked with naturally dyed thread. Surviving textiles are sought after. So, too, are new designs from artists who continue to reinvent practical home furnishings in the Arts & Crafts spirit.

Embroidery and other needlework became an appropriate artistic and financial pursuit for 20th-century American women, thanks largely to American designer Candace Wheeler—by way of Great Britain. Wheeler, who produced exquisite embroidered draperies and portières for clients such as author Mark Twain, was influenced by the work of the British Royal School of Needlework, an exhibitor at the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876.

An embroidered and appliqued table square brightens an oak side table and calls attention to the wicker lamp. Photo: Jessie Walker

An embroidered and appliqued table square brightens an oak side table and calls attention to the wicker lamp. Photo: Jessie Walker

A second influence was the designer and father of the British Arts & Crafts movement William Morris, who experimented with natural dyes to produce saturated colors in embroidered designs, and who collaborated with his wife, Jane, and daughter May Morris to execute his vision. A third was Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who memorably recast the notion of what a rose should look like in the new century.

Women interested in furnishing their homes absorbed these new ideas through magazines, which provided illustrations and instructions on how to create household textiles in the Arts & Crafts genre. Manufacturers of colorful silk embroidery floss partnered with publications like The Modern Priscilla and Ladies’ Home Journal to promote what textile designer Ann Wallace, in her book Arts & Crafts Textiles, calls the Art Needlework movement.

A custom bedspread from Arts & Crafts Period Textiles features an appliquéd design of stylized Mackintosh roses and leaves with stem-stitch embroidery. Photo: Gross & Daley

A custom bedspread from Arts & Crafts Period Textiles features an appliquéd design of stylized Mackintosh roses and leaves with stem-stitch embroidery. Photo: Gross & Daley

Among the most evocative patterns were those promoted by Gustav Stickley, both through his artistic guild, United Crafts, and his influential magazine The Craftsman. Favorite motifs for embroidery and stencils included stylized versions of trees, leaves, pinecones, and innumerable flowers, from rose to periwinkle, poppy to wild carrot. Designs were usually simple yet stylized and sophisticated in terms of visual impact.

Unlike the needlework of previous eras in America, which was often largely white, Arts & Crafts designs were colorful and notably graphic. The softness of the materials and a preference for slightly subdued colors used to create the patterns kept them from an unseemly boldness. The most memorable make use of the negative space on the face of the textile to accentuate a single motif, connected by slender runs of stitches or punctuated by small round or rectangular accents.

Embroidery kits and designs sold as patterns were easy to find and buy—in fact, Wallace writes, they were much more prevalent than were Arts & Crafts furnishings in general. Favorite colors included dark red, forest green, terra cotta, Loden green, teal blue, burgundy, sage, and gold.
The stitches, too, were simple, and the most prevalent included satin stitch, stem stitch, and outline stitch (often done in black). Finishing was as simple as possible. Flat pieces such as table runners or scarves have a blind hem, embroidered edge, or pull-thread hemstitch.


Needlework for Arts & Crafts textiles

Ann Wallace / Prairie Textiles annwallace.com Embroidered & stenciled table linens, pillows, bed coverings, roller shades; curtain hardware
Appliqué Artistry appliqueartistry.com Original Arts & Crafts appliqué pillow designs
Arts & Crafts Stitches acstitches.com Hand-embroidered textiles & kits
Arts & Crafts Period Textiles textilestudio.com Embroidered & stenciled table linens, pillows, bed coverings, kits, fabric from Dianne Ayres; also curtain hardware
Cooper Lace cooperlace.com Artisan-designed collection of lace panels in historical & contemporary patterns
Ford Craftsman Studios fordcraftsman.com Embroidered pillows, table linens, stencils
Graffiti Mats graffitimats.com Table mats with Arts & Crafts motifs
The Handwerk Shade Shop thehandwerkshop.com Roller shades with or without stencils
Inglenook Textiles inglenooktextiles.com Arts & Crafts textiles; embroidery workshops
Paint By Threads paint-by-threads.com Period-inspired embroidered & stenciled
textiles, kits; fabrics & notions
Trimbelle River Studio & Design trimbelleriver.com Large collection of Arts & Crafts textiles, kits, sundries