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Deerfield Embroidery - Local History

Our next butterfly in the Butterflies of the World series doesn’t come from an exotic locale – instead it hails from the sleepy little town of Deerfield, Massachusetts, about an hour away from our studio. Deerfield embroidery is a strange mix – at once severe and exuberant, sturdily made and a little whimsical, just like the women who developed the style. Picking though the influences in it is a study in local history itself.

Deerfield embroidery doily in indigo blue and white showing flax wheel trademark

Doily showing the trademark D and flax wheel of the Society. From the Natural Museum of American History – the Smithsonian

New England changes slowly, and it’s not hard to see that Deerfield was once a remote outpost – as far north and west as any settled point in Massachusetts for decades. Nearly a hundred miles of bad road separated it from Boston, so trade was scarce and the settlers had to make do more than most. Most of them were English, and they brought more than just their language to the New World.

In 17th century England, crewel embroidery was all the rage – particularly in the Jacobean style. This style was often worked in brightly colored wool yarns on a linen ground, and depicts very stylized plants and sometimes animals so densely that the background fabric is hardly visible. Swirls and patterned fillings abound, and many fruit and flowers of different species spring from the same branch.

Very stylized crewel embroidery leaf in green

A leaf in crewel embroidery, via Wikipedia

It was a gloriously rich style, but the colonies didn’t have the resources available that someone in London had at the time – trade ships were scarce enough in Boston, and getting goods in such a remote colony was especially trying. Since there was no popping down to the store to pick up a bit more thread, American designs quickly became much more spread out and airy than their English counterparts to make the most of small amount of materials. Wool yarn was quickly discarded in favor of linen for durability and moth resistance. Delicate stitches like satin stitch were replaced with sturdier ones that held up better to washing, like New England laid work, and the rich palette of colors available to the Englishwoman was often restrained to whatever the colonist could approximate with local dyes or easily available ones like indigo and madder, since she often had to spin her own thread, as well.

Deerfield embroidery piece with shaded blues on ecru

From Deerfield Arts & Crafts

Early Deerfield pieces were often made in just one or two colors; indigo was especially popular since it was fairly easy to get and could make a range of blues from very pale up to quite dark, depending on how many times the threads were dipped in the dye bath. Even now most Deerfield embroidery is worked in indigo blues and whites. Early embroiderers turned this paucity of color into elegance by echoing patterns of Flemish pottery, Oriental art, and Chinese porcelain - luxuries brought over by the East India Trading Company and only seen in the finest houses.  

One can’t research Deerfield embroidery without coming across two names – Margaret Whiting and Ellen Miller. These two women were instrumental in collecting, defining, and popularizing Deerfield embroidery. At first they intended to make just one replica piece for each one they found, but soon more and more interest led them to found the Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework in August of 1898. Deerfield was ripe for such a business venture; many young men never came back from the Civil War and many more left to find work in the city, leaving the girls at home. Deerfield was dying slowly, though it still had a bevy of ‘summer people’ that spent a long holiday there for the arts and the culture, and returned home bearing word of the Society to their friends in Chicago and Boston. News spread fast that the Society took orders and of the wonderful work they produced. Within a year fifty-four pieces were sent to the State Memorial Museum in Norwich, Connecticut, the first of many exhibits from coast to coast.  

Painting of Margaret Whiting circa 1900

Portrait of Margaret Christine Whiting, (detail) by Frances and Mary Allen, c. 1900

Margaret and Ellen trained a bevy of needleworkers in the Society and paid them well for their work, following the precepts of John Ruskin and common sense. From the beginning they worked hard to avoid advertising beyond the worth of the work, receive enough to pay well for well-done work, and to keep that work up to their exacting standards. Slips of paper note the amount of time it took for certain women to embroider certain designs so that a newcomer’s work might be gauged, and eventually certain women took on certain jobs like hemming or embroidering the long trailing vines. It was strange to read of such a similar business model to our own, and so close nearby.

One of the main hurdles Margaret and Ellen faced was the blue in the Society of Blue and White Needlework. Aniline dyes became prevalent after the war, but the blue faded fast in sunlight – no good. The old work was done with indigo, and a hundred years after stitching was still beautiful, so they learned to dye as their foremothers did. Ellen took to the dyepots especially and with much experimentation learned how best to get the beautiful blues they hoped for in their linen threads, as well as other dyes like Aurantine and fustic, logwood and cutch, sourced from around the world and accompanied by walnut and sumac from the backyard.

Natural dye chart with rainbow of hues

Natural dye chart from The Dye Dept.

In 1926 the Society was disbanded due to a variety of reasons. Ellen’s health was failing, Margaret couldn’t see as she used too, and many of the embroiderers were getting too old to work like they were. Industrialization was spreading fast, and ’boughten’ goods started to supersede hand-made ones. Margaret had compiled a manuscript of their work and patterns, but fearing that modern workers would ruin the craft with shoddy workmanship, she never published it.

In 1930 Margery Burnham Howe moved next door, and it wasn’t long before she was acquainted with her neighbors. They were friends for years before Margaret showed her any of the embroideries or patterns that she had compiled or used, and it was only in 1972 that a trunk of patterns and notes was finally sorted and catalogued. With the help of the manuscript patterns were matched to names and notes. The bed rugg (yes, two g’s) on display in the Frary House was embroidered by the Society and matches the Olive Curtiss pattern found by volunteers in the trunk.

Colonial bedspread with deerfield embroidery bed spread and curtains

Olive Curtiss bed rugg, from historic-deerfield.org

Margery Burnham Howe heavily relied on the patterns and the unfinished manuscript to write a book, Deerfield Embroidery, in 1976. We, in turn, have relied on her as one of the foremost experts of this unique and beautiful style of embroidery. Since embroidery is a folk art mainly practiced by women, it is very rare to find a documented history of a style, especially one so complete and firsthand. I can only hope Margery, as well as Margaret Whiting, Ellen Miller, and earlier contributors like Olive Curtiss, Aunt Bek, and Keturah Baldwin, would approve of the work done today.


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