Friday, 13 May 2016

Dating berlin wool work

As the popularity of Berlin Wool Work increased needleworkers began to work reference samplers to keep a record of motifs and patterns. Repeating designs suitable for upholstery were "spotted" around the canvas in no particular order. 

Long pieces of single weave linen with finished edeges were sold for this purpose. A popular cotton canvas call "German Canvas" had every 10th thread dyed a light yellow to help with counting the patterns.

The reference samplers were kept in workbaskets rolled up and new designs were added when discovered. They were often edged in silk with ribbons to tie the rolled sampler when closed.

Recently Hands Across the Sea Samplers have added a pair of Berlin Wool Work  reference samplers stitched by two sisters to their collection. Whilst the samplers have the names of the stitchers they are undated.

The story of the sisters who stitched the samplers is a fascinating and scandalous one that we are saving for another day.  In this post we will focus on dating Berlin Wool Work samplers.

Early designs are usually stitched on fine counts of linen or canvas.  As the decades of the 1800's passed the canvas used became larger and by the 1860 - 70's Penelope canvas became the norm.


Instead of the single thread that makes up mono canvas, Penelope canvas has a double thread mesh (two vertical and horizontal threads woven together). A single stitch can be made over the two threads decreasing the number of stitches necessary to fill in the canvas, but also allowing for greater detail in selected areas by stitching one thread at a time.

The feint yellow "10th" thread can just be made out on the photo below.


In the 1840's a popular design was the "lace stitch" motif created by using black threads of different thicknesses to give the illusion of lace.


The 1840's also saw the introduction of raised work or the "plush" stitch.


The Victorians emulated Queen Victoria and her family and as Scotland and Balmoral became the royal family's bolt hole all things Scottish became very fashionable. Plaid motifs were being stitched on spot samplers by the middle of the 1840's until Prince Albert's death in 1861.


The 1850's saw various textured threads being used: silk, chenille and ribbon were combined with wool and stitched into motifs.


Elaborate scrolled and ribbon designs started to emerge in the 1860's.


The early years of Berlin Wool Work saw the backgrounds around the motifs being stitched in light colours and creams but following the discovery of aniline dyes in the 1850's black and dark backgrounds became all the rage. See THE COLOUR PURPLE.

When dating a piece of Berlin Wool Work the difference between the bright aniline dyes and the softer vegetable dyes can assist. A note of warnng though - aniline dyes were not stable and it is easy to mistake them for vegetable dyes when they have been exposed to sun light for long periods of time.

If samplers have motifs stitched with threads that are a deep fushia, magneta and bright green together with black or dark backgrounds that is a good  indication of later dyes.
There will always be a large element of guess work in dating samplers but these are all points to consider.

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