Exquisite Threads: English Embroidery 1600s–1900s, drawn predominantly from the NGV Collection, explores the role that professional and domestic needlework has played in the development and expression of English visual culture over the last four centuries. Addressing embroidery’s role in English life, the exhibition is divided into three broad themes – Education, Fashion, and the Home – and surveys some of the most significant developments in this long history.
Bridging two themes, Education and the Home, this seventeenth century writing box is one of the exhibition’s highlights. The casket is exquisitely embroidered on each of its five sides with selected Biblical narratives, with figures adorned in contemporary dress for added relevance to seventeenth century viewers. These scenes demonstrated the maker’s embroidery skills as well as their knowledge of the Bible.
Proficiency in decorative needlework was one of the criteria by which to judge a young lady’s intelligence and taste. Assembled into a casket, likely by a specialist cabinet maker, the object was used within the home to hold writing utensils, jewellery or other small objects and represented the pinnacle of a young woman’s needlework education.
In the seventeenth century the Bible was the most widely owned publication, and the depiction of particular stories became a marker of a young woman’s self-expression. Framed in a raised oval garland of silk wrapped over narrow strips on the casket’s lid, Rebecca at the Well is a romantic tale about a resourceful, generous and kind young woman who is chosen as a wife because of her prized womanly virtues. This story is prominently positioned by this young embroiderer, most likely a girl of eight to fourteen years. The romantic subject matter may have been a commemoration of the worker’s own engagement. The theme was popular with young embroiderers throughout the century as they perfected their skills in preparation for marriage.
The additional embroidered narratives address broader themes. Tobias and the Angel at the shore of the river reveals familial sacrifice and devotion and the healing power of God; Joseph being cast in the pit depicts a story of jealousy and betrayal; Esau selling his inheritance to Jacob instructs on the importance of denying temptation; Jacob fighting an Angel presents the continuing triumph of the Lord; and Judith with the Head of Holofernes celebrates a female heroine. The mediative act of stitching allowed the maker to reflect on each of these stories, while the functional aspect of the writing casket ensured the embroiderer returned to these narratives, as she reached for her writing utensils to prepare her letters.