11 May 2012

Embroideries of Colonial Boston

Chair seats, Bradstreet family, mid-18th century.
On Wednesday, May 9, DH and I had a double treat. We attended an enthralling lecture/discussion featuring Hal Prince, legendary Broadway producer, complete with live musical medleys. After the lecture we viewed the third installment in a series of exhibitions highlighting needlework of colonial Boston, staying until we were kicked out of the museum.

Apron, Ruth Eliot, mid-18th century.
According to family lore, Ms. Eliot made the decorative apron above, and a matching stomacher, and wore them to her wedding to Reverend Jeremy Belknap on June 15, 1767.  How proud she must have been, wearing her own handiwork on her special day.  This piece was created at a time of great economic and political turmoil, but Ms. Eliot was evidently determined to have a beautiful wedding ensemble equal to that of any English bride. Her husband, Reverend Belknap, became a pastor in Dover, New Hampshire, and was quite active in the Revolutionary War.  Reverend Belknap was often away from home, leaving Ruth Eliot Belknap with their family, which eventually included six children.

One wonders if Mrs. Belknap ever had time for embroidery while raising their children, and this delicate and charming piece was an expression of the artistry she may never have had a chance to exercise again. No wonder she took so much evident time and care.

Apron, detail, Ruth Eliot.
Bed clothes and fashion accessories on view.

Curator Pamela Parmal reiterated the point that textiles, time-consuming and costly to prepare or import, were considered moveable wealth in colonial America. In addition, with our modern emphasis on bricks, mortar and a misguided perception of permanence, we've forgotten what children know when they prop a blanket over two chairs, making a "fort" - that a piece of special fabric can create a still, quiet place within its drapes. A nomad's tent, a Jewish ceremonial chuppah, Japanese noren curtains: all offer degrees of shelter and spatial definition.

The furnishings of the bedroom also telegraph wealth, rank, and status. Before modern hospitals, many lifecycle events took place in the bed.  Learn more about the design history of the bed in Going to Bed, by Eileen Harris, from the Victoria and Albert Museum's The Arts and Living series, ISBN 0112902871.

In bed we laugh, in bed we cry;
And, born in bed, in bed we die.
The near approach a bed may show
Of human bliss to human woe.
-- Isaac de Benserade (1612-1691)

Wide bed curtain, signed "A. P," 1674
Large scale works such as bed curtains were wonderful canvasses for bold, large-scale designs like this exuberant feathery motif.  This panel is worked in blue-green wool on twill-weave fustian. Fustian is a somewhat coarse, sturdy cloth composed of a  linen warp (lengthwise threads) and cotton weft (crosswise threads.)

Detail, wide bed curtain.

Detail, Fichu, Rachel Leonard, mid-18th century.
From the large scale to the minute - the above image is a detail of a triangular scarf called a fichu (FEE-shoo) typically tied around the shoulders. The fichu is made of muslin fabric embroidered with linen thread, in a style called Dresden work, which imitates lace. Do click on the image to enlarge it, and enjoy the almost microscopic detail of this masterpiece of craftsmanship.

The image below is from the website of Colonial Williamsburg; the fichu is tied with a brown bow.

Image source http://www.history.org/history/museums/clothingexhibit/museum_learn.cfm#accessories

Christening blanket, detail, Mary Fifield Adams, before 1713.
Mary's twelve children were christened in this blanket, including her son Samuel Adams, signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Sam Adams joined his family trade of fermenting malt, an essential ingredient for beer. Today there is a modern and quite successful beer company named after him.

Detail, Petticoat border, maker unknown, mid-18th c.

The border from which my detail image was taken is well over six feet long, which gives some idea of the circumference of those voluminous petticoats!