The Merging of Needle, Thread, Cloth and Spirit
 October 2nd - February 5th, 2007

Slide Show
Exhibit Catalog

Starting with a simple fabric base, a thread
applied with a needle by the embroiderer’s hand
becomes a miracle of the human spirit
as the simple stitch demonstrates the
ultimate skill and devotion of the worker.
Spanning all cultures, this transformation of a fabric
through the absorption of unfathomable hours of time,
 defines a passion and defies all comprehension
of these skills in today’s complex world.

The most basic definition of Whitework embroidery is embroidery of a single color, typically matching that of the base canvas, where design and skill is defined, primarily, by texture. The effect is low-key, representing a purity and demanding close scrutiny to experience its beauty. It is this demand for detail that requires the highest skills of the needle worker.

While primitive white embroidery has been found in Coptic tombs and evidence persists of experiments with whitework skills in most cultures, the use of metallic and color threads of cotton and wool, prevailed as the material for fabric decoration as evidenced by the extraordinary 11th century Bayeux tapestry and the Opus Anglicanum embroideries of the 13th and 14th centuries.

In the 15th century a new concept for fabric decoration with a needle took root and predominated in Western culture. The fabrics of linen were coarse and inviting to the skills for modifying the structure of the fabric itself. Threads could be withdrawn and threads could be pulled together to create both controlled designs and a striking piercing of the fabric.

Surface embroidery gained a new partner with these techniques, design could now rely on contrast of solid and open areas rather than color and material textures. This monochromatic or whitework embroidery would soon develop into lace where the base fabric was eventually eliminated, white embroidery relegated to the lesser levels of society. Embroidery with rich threads of color, gold and silver would again define ornament on fabric.

It was not till the mid nineteenth century that white work would demonstrate the ultimate skill of the embroiderer. For the first time the sheerest and most delicate of fabrics were produced, a most fitting canvas for the skills that were previously demonstrated by the lace makers.  Taking a parallel course, the finest laces would be challenged by the finest embroideries and often the two merging into a magnificent unity.  As we dreamed of turning straw into gold, the needle workers were able to virtually change cloth into lace.

At the same time, whitework would involve and capture the other fabric items which demanded ornament and dignity. Linens for both table and bed would be the canvas as well as the everyday garments, most of which were not intended to be seen except by the wearer. Here, the canvas was the function, whitework the soul.

The many techniques of white work are often combined, some as a reflection of the base material and others independent of the base material. 

Working with fabrics where the threads can be counted:
Pull Work, where the threads of the fabric are pulled together to form regular openings.
Drawn Work, where select woven threads are removed by pulling (withdrawing) them out of the fabric and the remaining threads then manipulated.
Cut Work, where geometric holes are cut out in geometric patterns.  Hardanger and Lefkara embroidery being examples. 

Working with fabrics where the weave is not a factor:
Free Surface Embroidery, where the embroidered threads lay on the surface of fabric. Appensell (Swiss) embroidery being the finest and Mountmellick characterized by the heavy base material.
Applique, where additional layers of fabric are sewn to the base fabric forming shadow effects. This is commonly found in Madera work and in some of the Pina embroidery of the Philippines.
Eyelet Embroidery, where holes in the fabric are formed by piercing, the name Embroidery Anglais  commonly applied.
Richelieu Embroidery, where freeform openings are cut into the fabric, design defined by contrast of negative and positive areas.
Embroidery and darning on netting or tulle is not generally considered within the scope of whitework. This excludes the popular Irish Carrickmacross and Limerick Lace, and the omnipresent Filet laces.

his exhibit will allow the visitor to explore the vast range of whitework skills. Some reaching beyond comprehension and others as familiar as that found on Mother’s pillowcases.   

The Elements of this Exhibit

As with most needlework of the past, origins and maker are unrecorded and unknown. We might know where we obtained a specific piece of needlework but this would rarely reflect its origin or its initial purpose. Most needlework was revered and consistently transformed into other works for new use or simply as way of preserving its beauty.

There are obvious technical characteristics which help identify a work and there are physical characteristics which can identify a fiber, but actual dating and origin must be left to conjecture. Techniques spread rapidly and innovation became the pleasure of the needleworker

The primary purpose of this exhibit of  whitework is to show the connection of the human spirit to the piece executed…to see and understand and somehow comprehend the dedication and skill of the worker in this involvement. It is this intrinsic value of each piece which goes beyond a name or date that demands our attention.

There will always be the need to know more and we at LMLT have done our research, but much is conjecture, and more questions than answers are the norm. We can only share what we see and what we have discovered and hopefully seduce you into this marvel of mankind’s achievements.

Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles lacismuseum.org