Unexpected Embroidery Content

There are times as a reader when you pick up a book and you think you know exactly what you’re getting: this is an historical romance; this is a novel about a family. And you’re right, but you also discover that it is deeply about something else. That was my experience with the two novels below, novels which contained a surprising-to-me amount of high quality embroidery content.

The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite (historical romance)
In the early 1800s Lucy, a scientist and an astronomer, has spent her youth helping her father with his work and publishing work under his name. After his death, she travels to London to apply to the Polite Science Society, a premier scientific organization of the day, and to try her hand at translating a French astronomy text. Turned away by the Society because she’s a woman, Lucy finds refuge with Catherine, a society widow who spent years supporting her explorer husband and is now interested in being Lucy’s patron. There is a lot here about the science of the era and the way it existed as a kind of gentleman’s pursuit; the roles available to women; and, for sure, the love that grows between Lucy and Catherine (this is a romance novel, so expect some steamy sex scenes). But I devoured it because of the detail lavished on Catherine’s hobby: embroidery. She embroiders maps, and botanical motifs, and the night sky on a finely woven scarf! The description of Catherine’s work made me hungry to see the way embroiderers blend colors, how elements of the natural world can be depicted, how craft becomes art.

The Gown by Jennifer Robson (historical fiction)
In 1947 Ann and her new roommate Miriam work as embroiderers at the Mayfair fashion house of Norman Hartnell, official designer of the Queen. Ann, Miriam, and the rest of the cadre of embroiderers are tasked with creating the intricate designs that will grace Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress. Robson brings this period in English history to vivid life, describing the impact of post-war austerity and rationing, the way the royal wedding electrified English society, the lasting impact of wartime experiences, and how working-class girls and immigrants could try and forge their lives in a dramatically remade society. That’s what the book is really about, and it excels at it, but wow – I learned so much about frame embroidery! Different stitches! The teams of embroiderers required to create a dress fit for a royal wedding! The fashion of the era! Divine.

If reading these books inspires you to take up embroidery, here are a few recent books that caught my eye:

A Year of Embroidery: A Month-to-month Collection of Motifs for Seasonal Stitching by Yumiko Higuchi
Arranged by month, Higuchi presents 38 embroidery motifs with seasonal designs, from skiing bears in January to seashells in July and a pomegranate tree in November. Also included is a primer on embroidery basics and techniques, from tools and materials to basic stitches.


An Embroidery Book of Stitch Craft: Simple Stitches and Peculiar Patterns by Gayla Partridge
For an altogether unique set of patterns, check out the rich designs of Partridge. With a focus on the organic, the embroidery ranges from the animal world and the human form, to the more arcane. If you’ve ever been tempted to represent a dissected frog via embroidery, this book has got you covered.

~ posted by Andrea G.

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