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Idle Hands are the Devil's Workshop: Embroidery

Instruction in useful and ornamental

accomplishments for the work-table

Most of us are used to deciding on a project and running down to our local Joann's or Hobby Lobby or Michaels and finding a pattern and all the supplies we need. For the modern-day living historian and/or reenacter this is not always that easy. Katelyn Heisch and Paula Frederick have put together this blog series to help identify resources needed for keeping our hands busy -- while sitting on the couch watching TV or interacting with guests at our sites.


General Whitework

Whitework is simply the term for white thread worked on white fabric. Often used for underthings and accessories such as undersleeves and collars, children’s clothes, and embroidered edgings. It is seen throughout most time periods portrayed by Texas living historians. Depending on the time period, nearly any ‘traditional’ embroidery stitch is possible. Stem stitch, satin stitch, buttonhole stitch, back stitch would be common nearly at nearly any time frame.

Whitework doesn’t always have to be worked by the person who is wearing it. Whitework and lace making were cottage industries where women would work the embroideries then it would be sold as yardage or by project (one could buy fabric embroidered for a wrapper, for example. Not made up; the purchaser would then cut the pieces to her size and make them up herself or by a dressmaker). By the mid 1850s, machine-done embroideries were readily available and cheap; But upper working class to middle class women who wanted to keep themselves busy would work their own embroideries if they had decent skill.

Ayrshire Work


Ayrshire work is a form of whitework done on very fine cotton muslin or lawn. Employed frequently for infant dresses, small whitework trims, white baby bonnets, collars, pelerines, etc. Stitches used are satin stitch, small eyelets, buttonhole stitch for scalloped edgings, double back stitch, feather stitch. The stitches are done on very fine cotton muslin or lawn using fine embroidery floss in white. Printed patterns are very difficult to find as it was mostly a cottage industry primarily regulated to a region of Scotland known as Ayrshire and then sometimes sent to India to be copied and distributed across the world from there. One would simply purchase the embroideries.

The University of Edinburgh Art Collection has several examples of Ayrshire work such as this beautiful Christening robe. This and other images can be found at their website.

Broderie Anglaise


Broderie anglaise was a well-established technique used through the 19th Century. It is a form of cutwork embroidery done nearly entirely in eyelet work. It is worked on heavier cotton such as Pima as it very durable making it ideal for underwear, night gowns, and children’s clothes. It is also faster to make up than some other embroideries. Eyelets of all kinds and scallops done in satin or buttonhole stitch are the common stitches used. Youwould also use pearl or other mercerized cotton thread in white. An awl is a handy tool to have on hand to poke small eyelets; and very sharp embroidery scissors for larger eyelets.

This is an example of Embroidery Anglaise in a chemise from 1861-1865 found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art . This would be an easy way to make our unmentionables decorate and pretty -- even if no one sees them.

You can find several websites offering tutorials in this type of embroidery. Crafting Communites is one found doing a Google search.


Berlin wool work started showing up in the 1840s and stayed popular for most of the 19th century. It is formed with x’s or half x’s worked on plain linen fabric often with wool threads. Cross stitch and canvas work are worked the same way but aren’t regulated for wool work. Instead youwould use linen cloth with wool, silk, or cotton threads. Today you can use mono or penelope canvas (the size will depend on your project), crewel wool or tapestry wool, glass or steel beads as needed. You can occasionally find patterns in fashion magazines such as Godey's or Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine (particularly 1850s and onward). Googling Berlin wool slippers will give you lots of hits; however, not all patterns are appropriate for all time periods so be sure you do your research on period-specific patterns.

The Victoria & Albert Museum has this available for viewing in their museum -- can you say road trip? This is a great example of the use of Berlin wool work.


There are so many other types of embroidery popular during different eras. Silk embroideries were especially common in the 18th century and held over well into the 19th century for different uses. 18th century also saw a prevalence of metallic embroideries with spangles (old term for what we would call sequins). Tambour work is done mostly in chain stitch and very popular in the late 18th century and early 19th century. Elytra is done with beetle wings and gold thread on cotton organdy fabric, with varying popularity within the mid 19th century. Crewel work is a catch-all term for embroideries worked in worsted (wool) that goes back to the 17th century (crewel work is seen with great frequency on 18th century pockets as wool is sturdy and holds up well for underpinnings). Ribbon embroidery is worked with silk ribbon often on silk fabric and shows up in the 18th and 19th centuries with varying frequency. Smocking is seen starting in the 19th century and is worked on regularly worked pleats.



  • *Book of Designs by Mrs. Watson, 1824 (

  • *Ackermann's Repository, 1809-1828 (serial magazine)

  • *Godey’s Lady’s Book (starting in the 1840s and continuing through the 19th century) always has several embroidery patterns per issue for everything from insertions to initials, children’s blankets to collars. Peterson’s Magazine (and most other ladies’ magazines) does the same.

  • Godey’s Ladies’ Book and other fashion magazines frequently publish is a good resource for antique books

  • and are good places to look for floss, linen, canvas, etc.

  • BLUE transfer pencil (blue transfers were available and common beginning in the early 19th century; yes red pencils are more common nowadays, but they don’t seem to be available in the 19th century. Clover is a brand which you can find at Joanns and Amazon

  • For linen and canvas Zweigart is a good source for counted thread embroideries/cross stitch.They also have Penelope canvas and single canvas for Berlin work and other needlepoints.The size of linen and canvas will depend on your project.

  • Embroidery needles are best for their especially sharp points and larger eyes to accommodate embroidery floss (DMC is a good brand for these needles)

  • Small (3-4”) scissors, very sharp; look for steel with even finger holes

  • DMC has good cotton embroidery flosses and you can usually find it at Hobby Lobby or Joann’s. Appleton crewel wool and Needlepoint, Inc. silk floss are what Katelyn uses for those fibers although there are other brands (Gloriana silk floss for example or Paternaya Persian Yarn for wool).

  • You may also want hoops (research genre paintings to help date them), thimbles, etc.

*None of these specifically have only whitework patterns-some tell you what colors to use, others don’t. Most of them can be used for whitework unless otherwise specified.

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