Near the top of the list of amazing needlework that we’ve found in our perambulations are examples of whitework. Whitework falls into several categories, but they’re all characterized by lack of any other color, relying on the stitchery itself for the ornamentation. Can you imagine executing thousands of tiny stitches before the time of electric lights?
Years ago at a local auction, I spent a huge amount of money on a pair of late 19th century lay-over pillow shams, plain white with an eyelet ruffle, quilted like I’d never seen before, at at least 12 stitches to the inch in an elaborate pattern. But that turned out to be just the beginning of my love for whitework. Since then, several even more remarkable items have come my way, one of them at a great bargain, besides!
Currently I have listed in my eBay store one of three whitework pieces I bought from a friend a couple of years ago; at first I thought they were also some sort of sham, but after visiting with Linda Eaton, the textile curator at Winterthur Museum in Delaware, I decided that they are in fact dressing table covers, a form that was previously unknown to me, made by a woman in the Philadelphia area in the early 19th century. While I do not know for sure that all three were made by the same person, they did all come from the same estate.
They also share much of the same imagery, a common classical theme of an overflowing basket of fruit in the center. Two of them have flanking cornucopias, and an outer surround of leaves or flowers. All are edged on three sides with fringe or trim.
I had lots of difficulty photographing these pieces, as there’s really no contrast. Hopefully you can see them without developing eyestrain.
The first features fruit basket, cornucopias, roses in the surrounding work and a knitted trim.
This one’s basket is piled high with fruit, has swirling vines with fruit and flowers around the outer edge, with a tasselled trim.
This is the one currently listed on eBay; it features the most intricate stitchery of all in the center basket , surrounding cornucopias and acanthus leaves. It has an applied fringe.
Compared to my first white on white shams, the dressing table covers are a whole different world. While the shams are intricately quilted, these three pieces are stuffed, or trapunto work, outlined by stitching, creating the design in high relief. The stitches are so tiny and close together, that at first glance I thought they had to be machine work. With the help of a magnifier, I count an average of 40 tiny stitches to one linear inch in the central basket and supporting wings.
Other parts of the cover are stitched with no less care and detail.
In an oval cartouche scarcely larger than a penny in the center of the fruit basket are the stitched initials HD; the letter D alone comprised of 42 stitches.
Keeping in mind that all of these were created in the 1830-1840 time frame, I can scarcely imagine the time and persistence, not to mention the skill, that these lovely items for the bridal chamber? required.
For some even more amazing examples of this beautiful whitework (as well as a number of other fabulous quilts), see Linda Eaton’s book Quilts in a Material World from her Winterthur exhibition.
Next time I’m on the subject of trapunto, I’ll share my whitework quilt – from about 1820 – that I found at auction for $2.00. That’s the bargain I mentioned above, and the reason I don’t feel compelled to hurry and sell the quilt!