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Book Review: A Winterthur Guide to American Needlework

A Winterthur Guide to American Needlework

One of my favorite things about being back in the US is being able to use the library again. In Japan, libraries are also popular, but my Japanese is definitely not up to reading most books. After only a month back, I’ve already gone to my local library three times.

While it might not have the most extensive catalog, I have found a few embroidery books to add to my reading list. First up, A Winterthur Guide to American Needlework by Susan Burrows Swan.

I’ve written about my love of historical research and cross stitch before, but I’d love to write a few posts that help others who’d like to do some digging as well.

The book was published in 1976, so keep that in mind when looking at the photos. Honestly this would probably be a great book to update. All the featured needlework items are part of the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum’s collection. With over 19,000 textiles, I’m tempted to drive up to Deleware for a visit.

A Winterthur Guide to American Needlework focuses exclusively on American-made embroidery, quilts, and knitted items from 1680-1880. This is primarily a history, so you won’t find a lot of details on how the embroidery was done, but Swan does break down which stitches and materials are used in each piece.

There is a lot of cross stitch in here, but often it’s not the only stitch included in the sampler. It’s also commonly included as petit point to give fine details or write smaller letters.

What You’ll Find in A Winterthur Guide to American Needlework

The book is divided up by the type of embroidery used. Most of the cross stitch examples are in the first chapter covering samplers, but a few other pieces used cross stitch in addition to other stitches.

These are the categories she covers:

  • Samplers
  • Canvas Work
  • Crewelwork Embroidery
  • Silk Work
  • Quilts
  • Tambour Work
  • Knitting
  • White Work
  • Less Common Needlework Forms

Unfortunately, most images are black and white, but you can also search the museum catalog for very detailed images. I found entering a year or name from the description worked well.

Some of the Samplers

A Winterthur Guide to American Needlework doesn’t strictly divide up the work by year, but by grouping the work by the type of craft shown, you do tend to see trends emerge. Most of the oldest cross stitch samplers are bands, and many of them fold or roll up rather than being displayed. As the 1700s progressed though, the samplers become more square-shaped and were intended to show off a woman or girl’s skills.

Below you’ll see a collection of pocketbooks from the mid 1700s – early 1800s. The top left is actually done in cross stitch, though obviously in very small stitches to allow for so much detail in the flowers and vines. The rightmost wallet might look cross-stitched at first, but it’s actually a queen stitch (the older photographs don’t show the space in the stitch very well).

A few pocketbooks featured in A Winterthur Guide to American Needlework. All stitched between 1740-1815.
A few pocketbooks featured in A Winterthur Guide to American Needlework. All stitched between 1740-1815.

The book notes the inside of the pocketbook or wallet contained her Mary’s name in cross stitch, so I looked it up in the museum’s collection. The blue-green silk is very pretty, and the stitcher (believed to be Sarah C. Cook, Mary’s second cousin) chose a great color palette overall.

The inside of the queen stitched wallet. This picture shows more detail of the queen stitch on the outside and the cross-stitched name on the inside.
The inside of the queen stitched wallet. This picture shows more detail of the queen stitch on the outside and the cross-stitched name on the inside.

One thing I love about the museum’s catalog that’s missing from the book, is that they list all of the materials used for each item. The book tells us what threads and fabric were used, but not that Sarah used a heavy card stock in the wallet to help give it more structure.

Here’s one of the most colorful samplers included. It’s a 1794 religious piece done by a Susan Smith (note the Sufan spelling as common of the time!). It’s primarily stitched with a tent stitch, while the pillars are in queen’s stitch, and the arch is done in cross stitch. The background was done with satin stitch.

Let Virtue be a Guide to thee by Susan Smith, 1794. A gorgeous sampler included in A Winterthur Guide to American Needlework.
Let Virtue be a Guide to thee by Susan Smith, 1794. A gorgeous sampler included in A Winterthur Guide to American Needlework.

The piece was worked only with silk on linen and is from the Mary Balch School, one of the earliest girls’ schools in Providence, Rhode Island.

One of my favorite things about this book is some of the very unusual embroidered items included. I’m not sure if this is indicative of Du Pont’s collection in general, or if the author simply preferred the weirder pieces she found.

This is probably the coolest one, an embroidered globe from the early 19th century, probably 1814.

pg 21 from A Winterthur Guide to American Needlework shows an embroidered globe sampler from 1814.
pg 21 from A Winterthur Guide to American Needlework shows an embroidered globe sampler from 1814. This “sampler” is believed to be unique to

So just to give you an example of how much better the photos on the museum’s website are, here’s one of the many shots they share of the globe:


A much better picture of the globe sampler. Most of the stitching is couched.
A much better picture of the globe sampler. Most of the stitching is couched.

In their catalog you can see photos from each angle of the globe. It’s a really cute idea, something I wouldn’t mind stitching up myself! This globe was stitched with silk, on silk, though the place names were written in ink. They say it’s about 16 inches in diameter, but since it’s mostly done with a couch stitch, it probably didn’t take Ruth Wright too long to make this.

Overall Thoughts on A Winterthur Guide to American Needlework

The book is interesting, but I found myself using it more as a reference for what to look up in the museum’s catalog. Their online photos are so much more detailed, and obviously in full color.

There are some details in Swan’s book you can’t find on the website, particularly her comments on the stitches used. The website tends to just say “embroidered” for a lot of the pieces where as Swan lists out all or most of the stitches used in each piece.

I learned a bit more about the history of American needlework. In particular, she does a great job of identifying which stitches and styles were popular when. Again, she highlights some really cool non-sampler works, so if you are interested in all the ways people have been using embroidery for years, this is a good jumping-off point for that as well.

If you can find this book at your local library or available at a reasonable price, it’s a fun read. It isn’t exhaustive, I mean, it’s only 141 pages and a lot of them have photos. I wouldn’t recommend paying too much though. I’m pretty sure it’s out prednisone of print, and all of the images are available for free at higher quality from the museum where they are stored.

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