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Berlin Wool Work Sampler - detail


British, ca. 1840s–70s

Women of the Victorian era embraced decorative needlework as a pleasurable, pragmatic pastime. An excess of ornamentation characterized period interiors, and household embellishment was an appropriate channel for feminine industriousness. Berlin wool work—a colorful type of canvas embroidery especially popular in the mid-to-late nineteenth century—proved an easy and economical way to update home décor and dress. As a prelude to embroidering domestic objects, women often created samplers that recorded various techniques and artistic effects. In the tradition of seventeenth-century spot samplers, these aidemémoires served as repositories of patterns and stitches for future projects.

This Berlin work sampler records a dazzling array of isolated motifs in brilliantly hued wool threads, accented with silk and metallic threads for lustrous highlights. These were likely copied from charts printed on point paper which indicated color choice and appropriate stitches for the most attractive results. Originally printed in Berlin and marketed with fine German merino yarns, which lend the genre its name, these charts were commercially available throughout Europe and removed the guesswork from creating harmonious combinations. An astonishing range of items— from slippers and pincushions to bellpulls and ottoman upholstery— could be worked with these versatile designs.

Berlin Wool Work Sampler

Some patterns seen here are sourced from traditional needlework repertoires, such as the imbricated scales and numerous flamepoint variations; others reflect prevailing decorative trends. Blocks of Chinese-inspired fretwork share space at top with a floral branch; directly below is a square of tartan. The Illuminated Book of Needlework (1847), a Berlin work manual compiled by Mrs. Henry Owens, gives instructions for replicating these au courant Scottish designs: “These should be worked in Cross Stitch, and may be copied from ribbons, or the new Berlin Patterns of the various Clan Plaids, which are extremely elegant, and are very correct.” Mrs. Owens also published a pattern and advice for working Lace Stitch, citing that it is most beautifully executed “…in black Chantilly silk, both in Cross Stitch and in Straight Stitch, so as to arrive at a sort of dice pattern, and the edge is finished with wool in Cross Stitch.” Three such examples appear here at center, the delicacy of each enhanced with faceted steel beads and pearls. Lace Stitch was especially fashionable in the 1840s. Though the maker dabbled in beadwork and Gobelin, Irish, feather, oblong cross, and cushion stitches, the favored technique was cross stitch.

This impressive sampler was probably a demonstration piece made by an accomplished amateur seeking professional commissions. A glazed cloth-covered cardboard roll, finished with the same russet silk that binds the edges, allows the sampler to be rolled up and secured with ribbon ties for compact storage and easy portability. Comparable examples are found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (57.122.503) and the Victoria & Albert Museum (T.3331910); the latter, approximately ten feet long, has two Lace Stitch squares similar to those seen here.

49” H x 7.25” W
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