The Seventeenth Century Needlewoman


The Seventeenth Century Needlewoman

Surviving needlework collections suggest that objects such as samplers, caskets and decorated mirrors were made by wealthy woman. Needlework was an enjoyable yet expensive and time consuming hobby, with many of the design sources being directed towards the upper classes. It would have been highly impractical and financially impossible for a lower class woman to make objects such as a beaded basket, caskets or pictorial squares of the same high quality due to the price of equipment.

Equipment such as linen, mica, beads, needles and threads would have to be continually replaced when wishing to progress further with a new style or item.  An example of one woman’s progression in the craft is Martha Edlin (1660-1725) collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The collection shows her advancement from simple stitches to more elaborate and complex pieces of work. It demonstrates the vast quality of different materials and equipment needed.[i]

Equipment and needlework material were also often very hard to buy. Although there might have been a small selection of goods available at country markets or through travelling salesmen, there were no local shops to fully meet the needlewoman’s needs, and often husbands or sons travelling to larger towns such as London on business were given shopping lists of items required.[ii] Woman further down the social hierarchy did not have the facilities or means for such luxuries.[iii]

Education and Needlework

Needlework and embroidery touched all aspects of a privileged woman’s life during this period. From her education to her desire to be in fashion, needlework played a vital role in her social and domestic position. Needlework was also a pleasant and enjoyable pastime which would have given her a lot of satisfaction, as well as a stylish product.

The education of a young girl was a very important element in making her a success in society and thus enabling her to achieve a successful marriage. Daughters of rich or learned parents had the luxury of being home schooled by a tutor or a governess.

Home schooling allowed for a wide range of subjects including needlework and embroidery. Girls would begin their needlework curriculum aged about seven or eight, starting with samplers.[iv] Samplers played an important role in a young girl’s education, teaching her different stitches, techniques and other elements of the craft. [v] They were not for display purposes but were kept as a record of her achievements. From basic spot and band samplers the girl would progress to more advanced items such as decorative pictorial squares and caskets.

The Great Picture of the Clifford Family commissioned 1646, Abbot Hall Kendal, Cumbria. Triptych measures 5.6 x 2.7 m

The Great Picture of the Clifford Family commissioned 1646, Abbot Hall Kendal, Cumbria. Triptych measures 5.6 x 2.7 m

The needlework curriculum clearly played a vital role in the lives of the Seventeenth-Century woman, as can be seen in The Great Picture of the Clifford Family. Lady Anne Clifford (1590-1676) commissioned the picture in 1646 and it was intended as a glorification of the Clifford family by the last of the direct line. It is interesting to note that in the depiction of Lady Anne Clifford ages fifteen she is portrayed with an array of items of cultural significance such as the lute to indicate her musical talents. The many books show her literacy interests. Her hand resting on a piece of embroidery indicates her skill and precision with a needle. She also had her governess immortalised in the painting suggesting that she must have felt her governess and therefore her education had played an extremely important role in her life.

The skills of needlework signified much more socially than may at first be thought. The skill involved in accomplishing such a delicate craft signified a woman’s ability in the control and organisation of her time, as well as the efficient running of her household.[vi] Furthermore, religious groups such as the Puritans believed that weaving, spinning, carding and needlework to an extent, was a safeguard against sloth and social mischief. If a young woman’s hands were busy so was her mind.[vii]

Needlework not only benefited young girls in their social and moral up bring but also played a vital role in their future domestic lives.[viii] Needlework and embroidery skills were vital for any female of a well-established household. Once girls were married these skills would be used to decorate the home with fashionable accessories. There are numerous examples of domestic appliances, soft furnishings, assorted drapes and throws which have been carefully decorated with a range of needlepoint and beadwork techniques. The Burrell Collection has several examples including a cushion from the early Seventeenth Century and a beaded pair of bellows from 1673. Embroidery crewel work and bead decoration of simple household furnishings kept the lady of the manor’s abode in the high fashion and manner required of the period.[ix]

[i] The Martha Edlin Collection consists of a sampler dated 1668 (T.433-1900), embroidered purse dating 1670-1680 (T.435-1990) and a selection of personal treasures (T.437-1900, T.451-1990, T.458-1990, T.453-1990, T.452-1990 and T.456 to B-1990): The Victoria and Albert Museum Website: : ACCESSED 13/04/09.

[ii] Brooke, Xanthe. The Lady Lever Art Gallery Catalogue of Embroideries, (Stroud: Alan Sutton in association with the Trustess of the National Museum and Galleries on Merseyside, 1992) pg13.

[iii] Swain, Margaret, Scottish Embroidery: Medieval to Modern, (London: Batsford, 1986) pg 54.

[iv] Ibid, pg 59.

[v] Brooke, Xanthe. The Lady Lever Art Gallery Catalogue of Embroideries, (Stroud: Alan Sutton in association with the Trustess of the National Museum and Galleries on Merseyside, 1992) pg10.

[vi] Morrall, Andrew and Watt, Melinda ed. English Embroidery from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1580-1700: Twixt Art and Nature,(London: Yale University Press, 2008) pg 57.

[vii] Ibid pg 57

[viii] Swain, Margaret, Scottish Embroidery: Medieval to Modern, (London: Batsford, 1986) pg 53-54.

[ix] Arthur Liz, Embroidery at The Burrell Collection 1600-1700, (London: John Murray in association with Glasgow Museums, 1995)pg 21.


Introduction to William Burrell’s 17th Century Beadwork Baskets

Beads have been used for thousands of years by different societies for a variety of functions. They have been used as trading tokens and their beauty can be seen on an array of costumes, accessories and miscellaneous objects from across the globe.  However, some of the most extraordinary objects to be decorated in this way are seventeenth-century baskets, of which The Burrell Collection has two.

Sir William Burrell (1861-1958) was a passionate and respected collector. Throughout his life he collected thousands of items, many of which he donated to the City of Glasgow in 1944.  Never a slave to fashions, nor a fan of the avant-garde, he defined his collecting tastes at an early stage and strongly adhered to them throughout his collecting days. Due to this The Burrell Collection has a large selection of beadwork and needlework dating from the seventeenth-century.

Attracted by their technical precision and beauty he was particularly drawn to canvas work pictures of which there are thirty-one in the collection. Heraldry and pieces relating to historical individuals were also of high interest to him. The collection has pieces said to have been worn by Charles II and Oliver Cromwell but he may have accepted these claims too readily. Burrell’s purchase books show that he thought the figures depicted on the basket’s base panel to have been Charles II and Catherine of Braganza. This may well be the reason for his purchase of the large rectangular basket.

The baskets purchased on the 1st April 1927 are clearly detailed in both Partridge and Sons sales books and William Burrell’s own purchase books. Burrell gives a full description of the objects in his purchase books as the large one is described as “a very fine Stuart beadwork basket finely worked with fruit and flowers on the sides and the centre part worked with figures of King and Queen with animals and flowers on a background of silk 25” and 19 ½ in tortoishell (tortoiseshell) case” and the smaller one as “a small early Stuart beadwork basket –oval shaped worked with figures in center and surrounded by animals and leaves in a tortoishell (tortoiseshell) case.” It is known from the purchase books that both baskets were delivered to Hutton castle in August 2917.

There are several of these baskets in existence, yet little is actually known about them. Secondary literature reflects this lack of scholarly research; bead work is only mentioned in reference to other needle crafts, such as stump work or embroidery. There is an extensive library of literature dealing with needlework and the lives of woman in early modern Britain. Needlework as a form of education and the advancement of skill and techniques have been addressed, but historical beading techniques and bead-work of the period have not been fully investigated. However, surviving collections in the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Lady lever Art Gallery, Maidstone Museum, The Metropolitan Museum and the Burrell Collection have proved to be invaluable when researching such a fascinating topic.

Both baskets are currently on display in the Needlework Room at The Burrell Collection in Glasgow.

(Part of my MLitt Dissertation entitled ‘Perfectly Curious: A Study on The Burrell Collection’s 17th Century Beadwork Basket’, The University of Glasgow 2011)