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needlework designs


By Margaretha Helm, ca. 1725

Margaretha Helm, wife of the cantor of the church St. Egydien in Nuremberg, not only taught embroidery, but also painstakingly documented her needlework designs. Compiled in three volumes, her repertoire of ornamental patterns—intended to enhance a variety of dress and furnishing articles—follows the tradition of German pattern publications of the previous century, which focused on embroidery rather than lace. Helm’s collection does include a few templates for cutwork and needlelace, but most of her illustrations feature freely composed floral motifs meant for whitework and polychrome silk and metallic thread embroidery. A series of alphabets (to be worked in counted cross stitch) reflects the practical needs of household embroiderers, yet the engraved flower and fruit designs, inspired by the lavish imagery found on Indian textiles exported to Europe, reveal Helm’s talent for providing her audience with decorative motifs in keeping with the tastes of the day.

The diverse applications for these patterns, as well as appropriate materials, are described in Helm’s own words. Linen, silk, gold- and silver-metallic threads are suggested for the embroideries, while fine linen, canvas, plain- or satin-weave silk, velvet, and wool are indicated as suitable ground fabrics. Several designs call for specific stitches—back stitch and satin stitch, for example—but Helm’s recommendations serve as guidance only, giving the embroiderer artistic license with the range of stitches used. A variety of items could be embroidered following her intricate models. Furnishing designs include those for chair upholstery, cushions, bed covers, and heraldic devices. There are also various patterns intended for costume; among the articles illustrated are aprons, stomachers, slipper tops, shaped and square purses, shirts for men and women, kerchiefs, gloves and mitts, hats and caps, and even a pistol holder and cartridge pouch. Interesting alternatives to these embroidery designs are presented in Helm’s patterns for cord-quilted caps and stomachers.

needlework designs



Helm’s work was issued by Johann Christian Weigel, a local publisher who specialized in illustrated, instructional books. Like earlier German pattern books, the collection is prefaced by a note from Weigel to his female readers, which affords a glimpse of the socio-cultural significance of needlework in the upper classes. The editor piously defends needlework as the most seemly of womanly occupations, not only for those of “Bürgerliche” (middle-class) status but also for noblewomen. Weigel further contrasts the habitually frivolous pastimes of the leisure classes to the useful arts of the needle, which have the added benefit of “keeping much money in the wallet that would otherwise spring forth through feminine thoughtlessness.” It is worth noting that Weigel published two other women’s pattern books, but he adamantly concludes by pointing out that all of Helm’s patterns are original, and that therefore the interests of other ladies who have published their embroidery designs are protected. The title to Part 3 reiterates that the patterns were “never previously published.”

Only one edition of Helm’s collected patterns was printed, thus making the series extremely rare. Few known copies survive, though six institutional copies are recorded in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the New York Public Library; the Clark Art Institute, Massachusetts; the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich; the Staatlichen Kunstbibliothek, Berlin; and the Danske Kunstindustrimuseum, Copenhagen. All except the copy in Berlin appear to include the first part only—the present example, containing nearly all of the engravings and folded plates issued in Parts 1 and 3, is one of the only remaining copies of this fragile and influential pattern book to remain in private hands.

2 volumes, oblong folio (Part 1: 8” H x 12.75” W; Part 3: 8” H x 13” W); 103 engraved plates including two engraved titles.

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