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redwork workbag detail

British, dated 1669

This seventeenth-century workbag, embroidered by a ten-year-old British schoolgirl with the initials I. S., survives in near pristine condition as an extraordinary example of a young girl’s talent for needlework. Prior to attempting a more complicated task such as embellishing a workbag (used to hold threads and sewing implements), a girl being trained in the domestic needle arts would have first practiced by making a sampler. The types of patterns and motifs worked on this bag in double running stitch in single-ply wool on a fustian ground appear consistently on spot and band samplers throughout the seventeenth century. While compilations of patterns used for needlework, such as Richard Shorleyker’s A Schole-House for the Needle (1632), provided embroiderers with examples of animals, plants and geometric designs, motifs worked in double running stitch were typically passed from embroiderer to embroiderer. The designs on this workbag reflect the ongoing exchange of British, Italian and German embroidery patterns throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: small insects, leaping deer and dogs reflect contemporary British needlework, as seen on a shirt with related animals in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum (T.2-1956); the border and medallions derive from Italian embroidery; and the corner motifs occur on German samplers and handkerchiefs of the period.

The selection of these motifs for a workbag illustrates both the young girl’s proficiency and sophisticated design sense. Rather than arranging motifs randomly, as is typical of needlework of this period, the symmetrical composition reflects an unexpected formality in the work of a schoolgirl. Her carefully organized arrangement of disparate elements—animals both realistic and mythological, borders combining floral and geometric elements, intricate medallions, and figures known as “boxers”— covers the surfaces of both sides of the bag in a deliberate yet completely charming manner.

Finely executed red wool and white linen tassels and cording complete this workbag. Specialized pattern books devoted entirely to the plaiting of cords were published in the early seventeenth century, allowing for their domestic production. The bi-color drawstrings may have been created with a small lyre-shaped instrument called a lucette.

The workmanship and design of this bag by young I.S. surpass any known related examples. Each side of the workbag offers a richness of imagery from frogs and jumping fish to snails and centipedes, from stags to gryphons, and from the expected to the unexpected.

18. 5” H x 24” W

detail redwork workbag
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