A Sampling of the Needle Worker's Art
Southwest Virginia Museum

The museum's annual 2005 "Riches in Stitches" exhibit featured a sampling of needlework from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. In an era of largely handmade piecework, the everyday homemaker transformed the purely functional aspect of simple and mundane household items and clothing into creations of beauty by adding embellishment through the techniques of embroidery, crochet, tatting, and more. We recently had on display a variety of such examples as well as some of the simple tools used to create exceptional examples of domestic skill.

Needlework in its many forms has been present for millennia. Egyptian, Chinese, Japanese, and Inca, for example, had developed various complex and intricate forms of needlework, although they have been found in contexts related only to the aristocracy. Likewise, Europe in the Middle Ages had developed elaborate forms of embroidery, petit point, crewel work, and various knitting and crochet stitches. However, this ornamentation was restricted to items worn or owned by the aristocracy, nobility or members of religious institutions.

Needlework was considered a suitable activity for women of the upper classes, as well as cloistered nuns. The 11th century Bayeux Tapestry, created in England in the 1070's, depicts the events leading to the conquest of England by William of Normandy in 1066.  At 230 ft. long by 20 inches wide, it is an unprecedented and unparalleled example of embroidery from the early Medieval Period.

With the sweeping social changes wrought by the plagues in the mid-fourteenth century, fabric embellishment began to appear on the garments of the emerging middle class, who had the financial means and time to dedicate to such ornamentation. However, laws and edicts were levied to restrict the wearing of certain fabric colors, weaves, and embellishment to the upper classes only. Needlework was thus the visible means to separate and identify the upper classes well into the 19th century.


The Southwest Virginia Museum is a member of the American
Association of Museums, the American Association of State and Local History, and the Virginia Association of Museums.


Victorian Society, with all the obstentation that became the hallmark of the "Gilded Age" continued this tradition to the extreme. The Industrial Revolution, which reached its apex during this time, provided factory-produced and reasonably priced skills, cottons, and woolen fabrics, threads and yarns, aniline dyes, (which made available an expanded range of colors), buttons, and the sewing machine (patented in 1846).

These durable goods, coupled with mass-marketing efforts and new transportation systems, made such luxuries available to the general population. These innovations also freed up time for the average housewife, who then added embellishment to the clothing, linens, draperies, and other household items of her household. Social implications dictated that the amount of time that a woman spent on such decorative pursuits became an indication of the family's social and economic status.

By the 1920's, factory-produced, embellished fabrics were being produced, and were instantly popular, as women no longer desired to spend their leisure engaged in such time-intensive pursuits. Home crafts went into a decline, and did not recover until the Depression. After 1930, hand-produced needlework again became fashionable, owing primarily to economic factors.

After World War II, and its emphasis on homemade and home-produced goods for the war effort, interest in needlework skills further waned. The social movement of the late 1960's-1970's, with an emphasis on heritage crafts and lifestyles, saw a revival in domestic, hand-forged and handcrafted items and skills. However, with increasing numbers of women entering the workforce, since the mid-1970's, hand-produced needlework is again declining.