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LHMP #353 Frye 1999 Sewing Connections

Full citation: 

Frye, Susan. 1999. “Sewing Connections: Elizabeth Tudor, Mary Stuart, ELizabeth Talbot, and Seventeenth-Century Anonymous Needleworkers” in Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye & Karen Robertson. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-511735-2

Frye, Susan. “Sewing Connections”

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In the 16th and 17th centuries, needlework was a strongly associated with the category of “woman” as well as being a significant marker of class in how it was created, used, and imitated. The motifs – both on large and small scale – provided a symbolic vocabulary to express multiple layers of meaning and offered a means of expressing identity, community, and subversion, as well as the more obvious symbolism of the designs. Elite embroiderers might have access to professional designers, but printed design books were becoming more general and patterns were shared within communities.

Because the symbolic language embedded in needlework was intended for public display, it was a medium through which women’s alliances could be claimed and advertised. This article looks at several prominent upper-class embroiderers of the 16th century and how such meetings to peer in their work, as well as more humble anonymous work of the 17th century.

New Year’s gifts from the young Elizabeth Tudor to her father the king and to queen Katherine Parr included embroidery-covered bound books of her own multilingual translations of religious and philosophical works meaningful to the recipients. The gifts thus demonstrated her scholarly accomplishments, her physical accomplishments, and her support of the recipients’ religious positions.

But her gifts to Parr had an additional purpose to express a filial bond to her stepmother and to emphasize their common interests, as women and especially as learned women. The texts she chose for the gift emphasized female authors and Elizabeth’s connection – both familial and symbolic – two female antecedents that connected her to Parr. As Elizabeth lived in Parr’s household after Henry’s death, this alliance was especially significant to her security, both were good and ill.

The second example involves the relationship between Mary Queen of Scots and the Countess of Shrewsbury during the period when the Shrewsburys were Mary’s keepers during her imprisonment in exile in England. The two had opposing political goals but close contact produced – among other things – joint needlework projects in which their differences were on display.

Mary’s needlework revolved around emblems representing her identity as a queen (and former queen of France), her claim to Scotland, as well as her status as heir to England, and the circumstances of her exile. Some of these messages were so pointed that an embroidered cushion given as a gift to a supporter was later entered into evidence at that supporter’s trial for treason.

Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury – more familiar to needlework aficionados as Bess of Hardwick, similarly expressed her own identity and ambitions. Three marriages of increasing rank expanded the ountess’s domestic connections and ambitions. These were symbolized in the embroideries she created to embellish furnishings depicting strong mythic female figures such as Diana, Penelope, and Lucretia. Elizabeth did not perform all the work herself, but directed the design and participated in the creation.

Samplers constituted a different level of needlework than the gifts and furnishings discussed above. In theory, a sampler served both as a pattern reference and as an advertisement of the maker’s domestic skills. As student work, they represented the connection between teacher and student – both women by default. The materials and execution of the sampler indicated status and personal skill. Repeating motifs and designs indicate the sharing of patterns among families. But there was also personal expression in the choice of scenes to illustrate, typically focusing on female biblical figures representing some virtue.

This paper feels somewhat cobbled together of disparate parts without a clearly sense of a central thesis. I think it can be be summed up as “Needlework was done by women. Needlework allowed for personal expression in the choice of motifs. That choice inherently communicated messages about the identity and image women wanted to show to the world.”

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