“We, Hermia, like two artificial gods,
Have with our needles created both one flower,
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
Both warbling of one song, both in one key,
As if our hands, our sides, voices, and minds
Had been incorporate.”
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III, Scene 2, Lines 208-213)
In her plea to Hermia in Act III, Scene 2 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Helena attempts to regain her childhood friend’s trust by reminding her of the times they spent together engaged as one at their needlework. These two, like birds “warbling of one song”, were once as close as any two gentlewomen could have been as their “needles created both one flower” while “sitting on one cushion”. In this passage, Shakespeare beautifully describes the unity and kinship created by women absorbed together in the craft of embroidery. In recent years, scholars have even compared Helena’s speech to the language of traditional marriage vows: “our hands, our sides, voices and minds/ Had been incorporate.” Needlework once brought these two women together, a pastime shared by all women of the gentry and aristocratic rank during the age of Shakespeare and beyond.
Throughout early modern Europe, the craft of needlework was so pervasive throughout the domestic sphere that when upper-class women spoke of “work” at home they were referring to their needlework. While lower-class women were spinners and seamstresses, upper-class ladies of leisure devoted their time to decorating cloth. Threads ranging from silver, gold, deep blues, greens, earth tones, and subtle shades of pink and yellow were stitched by nimble hands across linen, silk, and satin. Spangles, semi-precious stones, and pearls frequently accentuated these delicately woven treasures. Needlewomen decorated clothing and accessories from smocks to gloves; they crafted samplers like the one described by Hermia, book covers, caskets and mirrors, and small pictures to be used as cushions or wall hangings.
During the seventeenth century, John Taylor’s popular embroidery pattern book, The Needle’s Excellency (first published in 1624), describes the various stitches and techniques used by needlewomen and notes the virtues of women who fill their days with this craft. In Taylor’s sonnet “The Praise of The Needle”, a part of this larger book, he takes particular note of queens such as Katherine of Aragon, Mary Tudor, and Queen Elizabeth I, who all engaged in needlework. Not all embroidery was created in the peace and tranquility of a palace or country estate. For example, when Elizabeth was imprisoned in 1554 by her sister Mary Tudor under suspicion of treason, Taylor describes that she kept to her needlework to occupy her time:
Yet howsoever sorrow came or went,
She made the Needle her companion still:
And in that exercise her time she spent,
As many living yet, doth know her skill.
Thus was she still a Captive, or else Crown’d,
A Needle-woman Royall, and renown’d. (Taylor’s “The Praise of The Needle”, Sonnet 4)
Elizabeth I later “paid it forward” to her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, when Mary was imprisoned for nearly nineteen years, from 1568 to 1587. During her captivity, Mary Queen of Scots would also turn to needlework to occupy her time with the aid of her close companion, Bess of Hardwick. Embroidering was more than a pastime for these notable women; it was a sign of their virtue, patience, and skill. It reflected intimate details of their personal lives.
The George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum in Washington DC holds four seventeenth-century English embroideries in their Cotsen Textile Traces Study Center. These textiles are of such outstanding craftsmanship, beauty, and iconographic complexity that I have spent the last four months with Karthika Audinet, Coordinator of the Cotsen Textile Traces Study Center, unraveling the mysteries behind each one. Until now, none of the subjects depicted on these textiles were identified or fully understood by a modern audience.
All four embroideries feature identifiable portraits of members of the royal house. The fortresses, flowers, insects, animals, and fruits reveal the personal lives and hidden stories of the depicted individuals. The most iconographically complex of these textiles illustrates the story of Hero and Leander, a classical myth known to Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
The myth of Hero and Leander, told in the most complete form by the Greek writer Musaeus in the 5th century AD, tells the story of two lovers, Hero, a virginal priestess of Aphrodite, and Leander, a young man who lived across the sea on the opposite side of the Hellespont. Each night, Leander swam across the sea to see Hero, and his beloved would light his way by torchlight from a tower. They agreed only to meet in springtime. But one cold winter night, Leander saw Hero’s torchlight and crossed anyway. He drowned, and Hero threw herself from the tower.Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, completed by George Chapman in 1598, retells the ancient story and embellishes the account with a beautiful description of the maiden Hero’s veil embroidered with flowers so realistic that both man and bees were deceived:
“Her veil was artificial flowers and leaves,
Whose workmanship both man and beast deceives;
Many would praise the sweet smell as she past,
When ’twas the odour which her breath forth cast;
And there for honey bees have sought in vain,
And beat from thence, have lighted there again.” (Marlowe’s Hero & Leander, Line 19-24)
Shakespeare as well referenced the tragic love story in As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The Bard knew his audience needed only a few lines to understand the reference to this familiar tragic tale. For example, Benedict, when reviewing the love song he composed for Beatrice, humorously remarks to himself, “I mean in singing. But in loving, Leander the good swimmer…”
The stories stitched together by needlewomen are far more complex than what first meets the eye. They present us with a microcosm of history and an intimate glance at the women who crafted them in the courtly culture of the English royal house.
In anticipation of the coronation of Charles III, come view these newly discovered treasures from the court of Charles I and Charles II in the Textile Museum’s micro exhibition Embroidering The Crown. I will give a gallery talk on these newly discovered embroideries on May 4th. Advanced registration is requested: https://museum.gwu.edu/gallery-talk-embroidering-crown
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