The Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework by Helen Jones
“Do you run classes on Deerfield?” was the question from the lady at the craft show. “What is Deerfield?” was my reply. Ever interested in new stitches and new forms of embroidery that was enough to set me off to find out more.
Book cover Deerfield Embroidery - Traditional patterns from colonial Massachusetts -Margery Burnham Howe
Deerfield is a small town in western Massachusetts. From the early 1890’s it was the new home of two families, the Millers and the Whitings. While living there, Margaret Whiting and Ellen Miller, both women in their early 30s, unearthed some 18th century American embroideries. The embroideries were a colonial interpretation of what we know as Jacobean crewelwork. They started to collect the designs: sometimes buying pieces of work and other times paying local families to make a tracing.
Next, they set about recreating the embroideries. Both women had art training having attended the New York Academy of Design. Julia Whiting, an older sister, worked as a journalist and lent her talents to promoting what the other two women were doing. At this time the Jacobean design style worked in crewel (i.e. 2 ply) wools would have offered some novelty. The contemporary embroidery fashion was for delicate florals in silk or Berlin work.
The enthusiasm of the women developed into a village industry. People were prepared to pay for their embroidery and a group of local, skilled needlewomen was recruited and trained. The emphasis, from the outset, was on high quality craft which could stand on its merit, rather than as an economic strategy to provide an income for the stitchers (compare Mountmellick for example).The Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework was set up in August 1898. Within a year the society was showing over 50 pieces at an exhibition in neighbouring Connecticut. In 1899 there were 25 workers and by 1901 this had grown to 31.
The work included traditional motifs such as roses, carnations, pomegranates as well as some more exotic shapes, including one referred to as a “pagoda”, either inventions or simply flowers that have not been identified. The embroidery was worked to different scales, on household items such as coverlets and door curtains and smaller scale pieces such as doilies, tray cloths etc.
The range of stitches was limited, but there is much variety in a single stitch. Variations of feather stitch, herringbone, lattices (or trellis), knot stitches, buttonhole, outline, stem and chain were all present. A characteristic stitch was laid work which covers solid areas but is economical of thread as virtually all of it is on the surface rather than the back. Termed “New England laid stitch” it is a long stitch couched across the centre by either a long or a short stitch of the same thread and worked in either open or closed fashion. It is very much like today’s Roumanian and Bokhara couching.
The original colonial embroideries were worked mainly in crewel wool on linen fabric. Some was multi-coloured and some was monochrome blue. The Deerfield revival pieces were worked in linen on linen as the wool of the day was not resistant to attack (moths, light etc.). As well as researching the patterns the sisters experimented with dyes to produce their own threads. Aniline dyes were available but were considered harsh. Ellen Miller led the experiments in dyeing using indigo. Repeat dyeing of indigo produced a range of blues from light to dark. Other colours were used, madder for reds and pinks, fustic for yellows, and cutch (from the Acacia catechu tree) for browns and tawny shades. As the society name suggests the principle colour scheme was blue threads on a white background.
Work approved for sale had a trademark stitched into it (a flax wheel with a central D). The stitchers had to wait for their work to be sold to receive payment. Out of the price of any piece the stitcher received 50%, the designer 20% (these could be one and the same woman), 10% went to replenish materials and the remaining 20% went to the Society for administration.
The creation of the Society acted as a local catalyst for other crafts: weaving, braiding, metalwork. More specialist societies came into existence and together, as the Deerfield Society for Arts and Crafts formed in 1899, they held annual exhibitions. Deerfield became something of a tourist destination, a development not altogether welcomed by some residents. The revival of the colonial inspired designs was fairly short lived. As the century turned there was increasing interest in the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau styles. Applique combined with surface stitch make an appearance. Consumers were more interested in wall hangings and cushions. The doily had had its day. Some lovely pieces were still being stitched but bore no relation stylistically to the early project. The first world war, ageing stitchers and the improved quality of commercially produced textiles all contributed to further decline in interest. The Blue and White Society was wound up in 1926.
So, what is left today? Both paper patterns and examples of stitched work were preserved at the time. The paper patterns have since been conserved but much of the actual work has been lost, sadly a familiar story with much embroidery.
More information can be found at www.theartoftheneedle.co.uk/stitching-with-liz-helen
Much of what I have learned has come from “Deerfield Embroidery – traditional patterns from colonial Massachusetts”, Margery Burnham Howe, Scribner’s 1976 and the website www.artscrafts-deerfield.org