CharacteristicsWhitework is a general term that refers to any white embroidery on white fabric from the exquisitely fine, delicate stitches of Ayrshire to the bold, vigorous knots of Mountmellick and candlewicking Fine stitching using fine white thread on fine white fabric Stitches - satin, eyelet, buttonhole, chain, darning, seeding, overcasting, pulled fabric and drawn thread stitches
Through the ages, whitework has been practised by most civilisations and cultures. White embroidery has been found in Coptic tombs in Egypt. This type of embroidery has had wide appeal, and designs have been borrowed and adapted throughout Europe and Asia to produce distinctive embroidery styles. For a long time in Europe, it was only worked in convents for Church purposes.
In the 15th C linen fabrics were course and so were modified by changing the structure of the fabric – threads pulled together, threads withdrawn, together with embroidery. This monochromatic embroidery soon developed into lace where the base fabric was completely eliminated.
By the 16th C needle-lace flourished in Europe. Lace was very expensive and laws were passed to prevent people other than royalty and nobility from wearing lace, and so embroiderers developed techniques to circumnavigate the restrictive laws and emulate needle-lace.
The finest cottons originally came from India in the early 18th C. The fabric was so fine it was called ‘Flowering Water’. It was not until the latter part of the 18th C that cotton mills in Scotland could produce such fabric. One of the finest hand woven textiles is Pina cloth made in the Philippines using pineapple fibres. These fine sheer fabrics enabled the embroiderer to demonstrate skills previously demonstrated by the lace makers. Each region adapted its own folk motifs to create regional styles: Dresden and Schwalm work in Germany, Ayrshire embroidery in Scotland, Broderie Anglaise and Hollie Point in England, Hedebo in Denmark, Lefkara in Cyprus, Hardanger in Norway, Mountmellick in Ireland and Madeira embroidery. Chikan is a whitework embroidery in India.
Amongst the aristocracy, idle hands were considered the devil’s work and so elegant ladies turned out needle worked garments, flounces, edgings, collars and cuffs, decorated table and bed linen. Most often such pieces were worked in white which epitomised the purity of their makers.
Much whitework was produced professionally, whether in works rooms or given to outworkers: nuns in convents made altar linen and frequently sold embroidery, often to order. With the Industrial Revolution machines replicated the finest handwork. After WWII women returned to the workforce, leaving little time for needlework. Trade and missionaries brought whitework into third world countries but the standards never quite reached the fine work of Europe.
Swain, Margaret, Ayrshire and other Whitework, Shire Publications, No 88, 1982
Dawson, Barbara, Whitework Embroidery, Batsford, London, 1987
Inspiration Books A-Z of Whitework, book 1, Surface Embroidery, Country Bumpkin, 2007
© Valerie Cavill 2012