THE NEEDLES EXCELLENCY: English raised embroidery
In Spring 2017, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford hosted a six-week long exhibition of contemporary raised work, stitched by students of Ornamental Embroidery under the direction of its founders, Lynn Hulse and Nicola Jarvis. Four years in the making, the caskets and panels on display were inspired by the Museum’s holdings of seventeenth-century English needlework, including objects from the internationally renowned Mallett and Feller collections. The project was part of a continuing series of two-day workshops in the history of embroidery exploring the Ashmolean’s rich collection of European and Asian decorative arts, run through the Education Department.
The design for the casket lid, which united the boxes on display, was adapted from the 1673 raised work panel The Sacrifice of Isaac, bequeathed to the Museum in 1947. The individual floral motifs dominating the four corners of this panel – poppy, marigold, tulip and iris – were retained, but the Biblical story in the central cartouche was replaced with an oak tree, adorned with three-dimensional leaves and acorns, and the ground covered with insects and snails, copied from seventeenth-century pattern books.
Working in a similar fashion to the pattern drawers of the past, Nicola created a set of contemporary bespoke designs to decorate the frieze and side panels of each casket. Seventeenth-century raised work traditionally depicts Old Testament scenes; Classical mythology; the personification of the continents, seasons and senses; architectural landmarks; flora and fauna; and mythical creatures. The project became an heirloom piece for the students, so it seemed appropriate that the imagery on the remaining panels should have some symbolic significance while at the same time retain the spirit of the exemplars that had inspired them. Designs ranged from traditional heraldic beasts to family pets, flowers and insects, personal dwellings, motifs representing close family members both past and present, and leisure pursuits, such as gardening and needlework.
Stitched on a ground of Duchess silk satin, the casket panels were worked in a variety of silk and metal threads combined with novelty items (glass and wooden beads, spangles, seed pearls, shells and mica), using a number of raised work techniques, including needle lace, couched and wire work, as well as flat stitches. The finished panels were mounted on wooden boxes specially crafted by the cabinetmaker Paul Evett.
Following the success of the Ashmolean exhibition, the caskets and picture panels were exhibited in the specially curated textile galleries at the Knitting and Stitching Show 2018 (London, Dublin and Harrogate).
‘It is exciting to see the tradition of raised work evolving within the revived tradition of imagery and stitching.
These are new heirlooms and are worthy successors to an important English needlework tradition.’
(Dr Mary Brooks, exhibition review published in Text, vol. 45, 2018)
‘When I saw the exhibition featured in Classic Inspirations Magazine, I knew I had to come and see this.
We are not disappointed. Thank you so much for a wonderful display.’
‘This is the best work in the show.’
‘I am amazed at the skill and dexterity, they are stunning.’
You can click on the images below for more detail about each piece.