Our Objectives

Standards & Guidelines

Recommended Vendors

Future Schedule

Past Events

Research & How To


Contact Us


Research & How To > Period Crafts > Needlework

Period Needlework, Plain & Fancy:

Beaded purse pattern, Peterson's, December, 1861

General background & history:

A Brief History of Sewing Needles & how they are made from WomenFolk.com

History of Embroidery in America, the 19th Century (http://www.white-works.com/historypage2.htm)

The Case of the Lost Thimble, a discussion of sewing boxes, baskets, and tools (an article from “Virginia’s Veranda”, found at www.raggedsoldier.com/)

Types of Needlework:

  • General Embroidery

This would include various types of marking stitches for underclothing, as well as silk embroidery on aprons, etc.  Please note that, in general, samplers are not appropriate for adults to work on, since children predominantly did these as learning exercises.  If your impression at a particular event is that of a needlework teacher, you might be able to appropriately work on these, since the majority of the patterns were either created by teachers for their students, as well as being purchased, and then first worked by the teacher as an example.  In addition, the majority of the samplers were done in earlier years, as by the time of the 1860s, there were other types of needlework that took preeminence. We would also stress that the samplers we are speaking of are not the more modern cross-stitch, but would incorporate a variety of stitches in addition to this one stitch. 

  • Whitework

This section would include Ayrshire embroidery, Broderie Anglaise, as well as the more simple forms of whitework. All are appropriate to embellish fine collars and undersleeves. For a good discussion on whitework and Ayrshire embroidery, take a look at Whiteworks.com (http://www.white-works.com/WhiteworkEmb.htm) and Heritage Shoppe (http://www.heritageshoppe.com/heritage/essays/essays.html).  Again, please note that not all types of whitework will be appropriate to your impression, as some have their roots in particular ethnic groups, and were not universally popular.

  • Berlin Work

Berlin wool work was developed in Germany in the early 19th century for the amateur needlewoman based on the hand-painted charts of Cross Stitch patterns that were worked with a very soft wool that was spun in the city of Saxe-Gotha.  The wool was taken to Berlin where it was dyed and packaged with the charts which were also printed and painted there.  The first twelve charts were released in 1804 by a Mr. Phillipson, and within the next forty years, at least 14000 different designs were produced.  When the brightly-colored wools became commercially available in 1820, it was accorded the name Berlin Work; these wools actually began to replace crewel, lambs wool and silk threads that had been popular materials.  The wool was dyed in brilliant colors reflecting popular German taste.  In addition to the standard Cross and Tent stitches, new stitches created a thick dimensional pile that added to the richness and reality of floral designs.  Some designs called for the inclusion of colored glass beads as an accent. The instructions for Berlin work can be found in virtually every needlework book and magazine published during the period.  The widespread availability of the patterns and the yarn made Berlin work an easily accessible form of needlework for all classes.  Berlin Work may be done on various types of canvas, or perforated paper as well.  Some of the canvas types listed in period books include cotton, wool, silk, and hemp, which was primarily used for carpets and rugs. Perforated paper could be obtained in a variety of colors and sizes, all of which were smaller than the 14 count which is the only one available today.  Berlin work could also be done with cotton embroidery threads, as well as the wool mentioned above.  Silk threads were also available, but not commonly used for Berlin Work.*

  • Beadwork

The use of beads as human adornment dates back approximately 45,000 years and continues during the present time. However, types of beads and methods of their use go through varying cycles of fashion. During the mid 19th century, the most commonly used beads are glass seed beads.
Venice was the center of the seed bead industry, producing beads in a variety of sizes and upward of two hundred colors. Bead production was a largely done by hand; hot glass tubes were pulled up to 200 feet in length, allowed to cool and then cut to length. The resulting sharp ends were smoothed by rotation in a large heated cylinder. The finished beads were passed through sieves, sorted to size and strung upon thread to form skeins for sale. Sizes ranged from 30 to 240 (the larger the number, the smaller the bead) with the smallest beads being reserved for the finest work. The smallest beads currently being produced are size 150, which are approximately 0.062 inches in length or about twice the size of 240s. A popular variation on the seed bead is the Charlotte, which is a regular smooth seed bead with one small facet ground into it, resulting in a subtle, sparkling effect. Also prized for their ability to catch the light, steel beads were another popular choice; unfortunately they are no longer being produced. A large variety of colors were available, opaque beads being favored over transparent, with the exception of clear crystal beads. Faux pearls were also available and often used for jewelry.
Beads were incorporated into nearly all the popular needlework styles of the mid 19th century, including, knitting, crochet, embroidery, Berlin work, netting, etc. The various ladies magazines show numerous patterns and descriptions of many beadwork projects for the home, such as pen wipers, Bible markers, lamp mats, watch pockets, etc. Items for personal adornment and accessories are also well represented, including evening headdresses, miser bags and reticules, bracelets and other jewelry. Beadwork is rarely incorporated into garments such as dresses, although accessory items such as fancy aprons or bonnets may include small amounts of beaded trimmings.**

  • Tatting

Tatting is a needlecraft whose early history is not clearly defined, thus its ancestry is murky and origins are inconclusive.  Tatting, or at the least the forerunner of the needlework form we know today by that name, was possible first developed in Europe and could have been derived from an early form of knitting (a series of knots sewn onto a base which created the design. There is some documentation that tatting or some form of tatting was done in the mid to late eighteenth century.  According to Mary Konior, a 1739 edition of a German book mentioned shuttle lace, which would differentiate it from knotted or bobbin lace. After the beginning of the nineteenth century, knotting apparently fell out of favor and the craft remained dormant for some years until the first Industrial Exhibition in France where several pieces of tatted needlework were displayed.  Interest in tatting increased and it was brought to England.  A number of primary sources stated that tatting had been an old craft (even thought the word “tatting” did not appear in print until 1842) and Cassell’s included the following statement in their tatting section: “Tatting, although (it may be considered) of recent introduction in modern times, is merely a revival of an art practised [sic] by our grandmothers.” A number of references from the beginning of the nineteenth century refer to this needlecraft being done in earlier times, but do not call it tatting.
Interest in tatting in the United States seems to have increased by the mid-nineteenth century.  There were two American publications, published in 1843 and 1848 that included directions for tatting but it was not until the mid-1850s that there was a surge in popularity. Tatting is a craft or art that requires very little equipment or expensive materials, an advantage noted in a number of references.  The required equipment for many patterns consists of a shuttle, some type of hook used in joining the rings, and a strong thread.  The size of the lace is determined by the size of the thread used, so one does not need different sized shuttles even though different sizes are available.

Please note that although needle tatting may yield a period-looking result, the technique itself is NOT period, and therefore inappropriate for Civil War living history scenarios. ***

  • Lacemaking

At the middle of the Nineteenth Century, lace was beginning to change from a scarce and valuable luxury product available only to the wealthy to a commodity accessible to the middle class.  Following the invention of machines to produce silk or cotton bobbinet in England around 1808, machine-made lace in increasingly complex patterns began to compete with traditional handmade bobbin lace (or pillow lace, as it was called at the time) and needle lace.  As lace production in Europe rose, voluminous silk Chantilly lace shawls, durable cotton lace trims, and other varieties of lace flounces, bonnet veils, collars, undersleeves and headdresses made their way to the American market.
The handmade lace trade was still being carried on in northern Europe as well.  For the ambitious needlewoman, articles on making one’s own pillow or needle lace, or imitating them with embroidery on netting or whitework, can be found in period needlework manuals and magazines. Silk and cotton were the most commonly used fibers for lace, followed by very fine (100/2 weight or finer) linen thread for handmade laces.  In brief, bobbin lace is made by weaving and braiding threads around pins set into a pricked paper pattern on a large, heavy pillow or bolster traditionally filled with barley straw or seagrass.  The bobbins are turned wood or bone rods 4”-5” long with a narrow neck to hold the thread.  A complex pattern will require several dozen bobbins.  Needle lace is made with combinations of buttonhole stitches worked over a paper pattern which is torn away when the lace is complete. 
Using lace in the replication of clothing from the 1850s and 1860s presents challenges to the living historian, however, since very little of the machine-made lace available today replicates what was available during “our period.”  Period machine-made lace is much more delicate than the laces typically available on the market today, and the production methods were quite different.  Chemical lace, laces made with chunkier threads (such as Cluny, filet lace, Irish crochet), and Battenberg lace were not in existence prior to 1881. The popular styles of lace used in the mid-Nineteenth Century include:

  • Honiton:  individual floral motifs in bobbin lace joined together with buttonhole stitch.  Queen Victoria’s wedding gown was covered in Honiton lace.
  • Chantilly:  originally a handmade bobbin lace, by the 1850s Chantilly was machine made of silk threads.  The classic triangular black lace shawls are usually Chantilly, and are not necessarily mourning wear – a light colored dress accentuates the pattern of the lace much better and was a fashionable look.  Machine-made Chantilly still required extensive hand-finishing, such as adding purling (a very fine picot edging) and outlining the pattern with a slightly heavier silk thread.  White Chantilly shawls are much rarer than the black.
  • Blonde: a silk lace with dense, regularly spaced floral motifs on a fine net.  Blonde got its name because it because it originally was made of unbleached silk, but “black Blonde” and “white Blonde” were also available.
  • Valenciennes :  a narrow white cotton lace suitable as a lingerie trim (collars, cuffs, chemises, handkerchiefs, etc.) sturdy enough to launder, and one of the few laces where modern examples reasonable approximate the period type.  Traditional Valenciennes is very durable because each bar in the mesh consists of a four-strand braid of individual threads. A passable modern version of Valenciennes lace can be had from most heirloom sewing suppliers. (www.farmhousefabrics.com is one good source for this.)  Look for “cotton French lace”  or “French Val” edgings.  Frequently the modern version is 90% cotton, 10% nylon, but occasionally 100% cotton ones can be found.****

As may be seen, all  types of lace are not appropriate to the period.  Here is an excellent page to help with lace identification: http://www.lacefairy.com/ In the frame on the left click on “Lacemaking” and then “Lace ID”.

*Information on Berlin work used by permission of Genteel Arts Academy (www.genteelarts.com) and Carolann Schmidt.
** Kelly Dorman makes wonderful reproduction beaded accessories and her site may be found here: http://www.backwardglances.net/index.htm. Thanks to her for the information on beadwork.
*** Information on tatting, taken from the book Flitting Fingers, used by permission of Virginia Mescher, author.
****Thanks to Hilary Isacson for the information on period lace.

(For knitting and crocheting, see separate knitting section)

Sources for Supplies:

Naturally dyed silk embroidery thread
Silk chenille and threads: www.treenwaysilks.com
Au Ver a Soi  http://www.silk-thread.com/silk-thread.html
Threads for whitework: http://www.accomplishments-shop.com/access/cotton.html
General period needlework supplies: www.lacis.com
Beads: www.firemountaingems.com
www.beadcats.com (excellent for seedbeads)
Perforated paper: http://www.yarntree.com/webcatpdf/page07.pdf
Tatting supplies:
Lacemaking supplies:



AGSAS Members: Contact Kathryn to recommend a link, report a broken link, or suggest removal of a link.