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PANEL OF UNCUT EMBROIDERED SLIP MOTIFS
English, mid 17th c.

A widespread fascination with horticulture characterized Tudor and Elizabethan culture. Publications of “herbals,” or illustrated compendiums of various floral and fruit species with detailed descriptions, proved indispensable for botanists, apothecaries, gardeners, and artisans alike. This intersection of natural study and decorative vocabulary manifests itself best within the realm of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century needlework. Perhaps no other category of decorative arts better demonstrates the direct relationship between the gardener’s art and the embroiderer’s art than needlework slips. This specific type of embroidered appliqué takes its name from contemporary horticulture terminology—a “slip” was a cutting taken from a plant for grafting or cultivation. Period depictions of gardens often show slips planted directly into small mounds of earth, isolated from one another to emphasize their special qualities.

Slip appliqué decoration was a common and practical way to embellish textiles. Typically embroidered in tent stitch, individual motifs were inked onto canvas and worked in neat rows, sometimes backed with a thin layer of silk or fine linen for stability and ease of application. The slips were then cut out and applied to a separate and suitably rich ground fabric, usually satin or velvet. Slip-decorated materials were much less expensive to procure than elaborately woven textiles of the period, and also much more economical to produce within the confines of a home. Though clothing and small-scale items such as cushions, purses and decorative pictures were well-suited for slip appliqués, it is in the category of household furnishing textiles that slips most often appear. No matter how large the curtains or wall hanging, embroidered slips could be worked on a frame of convenient size and then applied to the intended fabric’s surface, sometimes in regularly spaced intervals, and sometimes scattered randomly for a charming, informal effect. Slip motifs also had an advantage over entirely surface-embroidered textiles—once the ground fabric had become worn or unfashionable, slips could be detached and reused in other ornamental capacities.

Though simple enough to be made by amateurs of varying skill, slip needlework was also the domain of professional male embroiderers in London and “work women” in the trade. The remarkably well-preserved and rare example of uncut slips seen here is undoubtedly the accomplishment of a specialized workshop. Ten identical pear branches, all worked with dazzling silk thread in extremely fine tent stitch, are aligned in two columns—each motif represents a graft, complete with the “heel” of the cutting. Two pendant pears, primarily of a golden yellow hue with accents of pink, peach and chartreuse to indicate degrees of ripeness, issue from a knobby brown branch with twisting leaves shaded with multiple colors of green and yellow with brilliant white highlights. Also repeated within each slip, and speaking to the English delight in the natural world, is a colorful butterfly at rest on one pear, and a tiny ladybug nestled on a teal blue leaf. The sensitivity to shading extends to the outlines of each separate element. Only the branch and insects are outlined in black, while the pears are picked out in deepest brown, and the leaves in dark green. The results are naturalistic, even though shading and shaping motifs with convincing realism is not easily rendered in a counted stitch technique. Attesting to the unused condition of these slips, the colored silks are as vivid and true on the reverse of the embroidery as on the front.

Though it is uncommon to find slips which remain in this state of preservation, the example seen here was but one of a group of seven unused panels which belonged to lace scholar and collector Margaret Simeon. Of this group, one panel of tulip and anemone motifs is in the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, New York (1992-168-1), and another with anemones is in the Art Institute of Chicago (1993.126). Satin curtains with slip appliqués in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (T54-1883), feature motifs very similar to those embroidered on these uncut panels; it was, in fact, through Simeon’s donation that the museum was able to add these curtains to their holdings.

22” H x 9.5” W

Panel of Uncut Embroidered Slip Motifs
pages 4-5 pages 8-9  

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