Tuesday, September 6, 2022

 Cross Stitch in the 16th Century? 

For YEARS I have heard through word of mouth that the art of cross stitch was not a form of fiber arts one would find in 16th Century England. As an avid cross stitcher, I found that disappointing. I cannot knit, I cannot spin (yet), and my embroidery skills are minimal at best. My cross-stitching, however, is excellent! In researching appropriate forms of fiber arts for the group I direct, and participate with, Fiber Arts of Merriwick at the Washington Midsummer Renaissance Faire, I was shocked to discover that the information filtered down to me over the years was not “quite” accurate.

Embroidery, in and of itself dates back to Egypt to about 500 AD. In around 1860, a dig in a remote corner of Egypt found 3 tombs. Inside one, of what is believed to be a wealthy slave owner, they discovered a series of well-preserved linens that were decorated with embroidered coins and wall paintings. In addition, there were frescos detailing "tapestries" that had been woven, as well as other embroideries. During the 6th and 8th Centuries, records from both the Chinese and Russians began to detail a vast movement of embroidery. Ledgers from the time period offer details that tea was often traded for produce, to include embroidery. 

The first western embroidery known is the "Bayeux Tapestry." In it, you see depicted the events from the time period of 1066 AD in Britain. This particular tapestry is highly regarded in Britain, but more important to this particular topic is that it features many new forms of stitches, to include the over-under, or cross stitch! (Mind blown!)

Whilst up until 1100 to 1429 AD, point crossed stitches had definitely been used, there was no specific reason to use them. However, in the Islamic states, you find cross stitches used on traditional hemp fabric garments in a small repeating pattern in a grid. If you're a cross stitcher, you're familiar with a "grid pattern." In a grid pattern, the stitches line up perfectly, so that the stitcher can more easily count the grid squares and know where to make each stitch. This grid pattern technique quickly moved across Europe and the Baltic States. 

The Victoria & Albert Museum has a collection of over 700 needlework samplers ranging from the 1400s, to pieces stitched in the 20th Century. They offer a fascinating insight into the practice and teaching of this important domestic fiber arts craft. You can follow a timeline of their pieces, but I've included those specifically during the time period of interest below. 


The English word "sampler," derives from the Latin word "exemplum," or the old French term "essamplaire," meaning "an example."  Before the introduction of printed designs or pattern grids, embroiderers and lacemakers needed a way to record and reference different designs and stitches. The answer was to create a "Sampler - or a personal reference of work which featured patterns and motifs that the owner may have learned or copied from others. These samplers were used as references to create new pieces. 

Such stitch and pattern collections may have been assembled in a number of cultures where such decorative needlework was widely practiced. However, early examples rarely survive. The quality of the oldest surviving samplers suggests they were made by experienced hands, as well as children. In many cultures, learning needlework was an important part of a young girl's education. 

The First picture (below) is Egyptian in origin and is one of those found in the V&A Museum: 

{Sampler, unknown maker, 14th – 16th century, Egypt. Museum no. T.326-1921. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by G. D. Hornblower, Esq.}

16th Century Samplers

References in modern-day books and inventories suggest that in Tudor England, samplers were used as “references.”  An “exampler for a woman to work by,” is the definition used by John Palsgrave's Anglo-French dictionary dating to 1530. The first pattern book for embroidery was published in Germany in the early 1520s, and was followed by others in Germany, Italy, France, and England. Despite the increasing availability of these books, most embroiderers in the 16th century would still have relied mainly on physical examples of their craft for inspiration and the transfer of specific skills. One reason, in my opinion, may have to do with the expense of purchasing books. Books were considered a luxury item.


Surviving examples of 16th-century samplers are extremely rare. Highlights in the V&A collection include a German piece that was worked mostly with ecclesiastical motifs in the style of the earliest group of pattern books (from 1524–40), which is believed to have probably been destined to decorate church linen used on altars and such.


{Sampler, unknown maker, 1500 – 1550, Germany. Museum no. T.114-1956. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by Admiral Sir Robert and Lady Prendergast.}

Next, we see an Italian sampler embroidered in silk thread. It is surrounded with border patterns typical of those used in the 16th Century to decorate personal household linen. Upon closer inspection, there appears to be a combination of straight stitches and cross stitches (in blue) at the top right-hand corner, and again in the center left (gold, red, blue). 

{Sampler (detail), unknown maker, 16th century, Italy. Museum no. T.14-1931. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London}

Another example, made in England by a woman called Jane Bostocke in 1598, is somewhere between a reference piece and a demonstration of Jane’s skill. Her work is the earliest known sampler to include an embroidered date. It also carries an inscription commemorating the birth of a child, “Alice Lee,” two years earlier. The quality of the embroidery is very high, and Jane Bostocke may have been a member of the family's household employed for her needlework skills.


 {Sampler, Jane Bostocke, 1598, England. Museum no. T.190-1960. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London}

1509 AD

Whilst counted cross stitch had grown in popularity in Europe over the last few hundred years, England didn't have much use for it, and appears to have focused on other embroidery styles. However, Catherine of Aragon brought blackwork with her from Spain, and the cross stitch to the English court. In fact, she used to decorate Henry VIII's shirts with blackwork. 

Below you can see an example of blackwork in the portrait of Catherine of Aragon. 

Of course, what the King and Queen wore, became the height in fashion and style among the nobility, and would in course filter down to those among the Gentry. From what I understand, Blackwork was expensive, so it's not something you would see often among the working class; however, assumptions have been made that you might see blackwork in small amounts among the middle class, more especially among wealthy merchants. I'm currently searching for documentation to support those "assumptions." 

1524 AD

According to the sources I have found whilst running a search on the subject, there were references made of the "first known counted cross stitch book" being published in England. While there is said to be no surviving copy of this "book" (I was unable to source the actual name), it is said there are many references to its existence; however, I have not yet found it. That doesn't mean it wasn't published, it's just not available in a simple Google search. 

1570 - 1585 AD 

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and Bess of Hardwick stitched the Oxburgh Hangings, which is one of the best-known early samples of needlework embroidery to include cross stitching. It was stitched during Mary's captivity in England. The Oxburgh Hangings consisted of needlework bed hangings of green velvet; each with a square centerpiece with octagonal embroidered panels of emblems to include plants and animals surrounding it. The hangings were made between the years of 1570 and 1585. An accomplished needlewoman, Bess of Hardwick joined Mary at Chatsworth for extended periods of time in 1569, 1570, and 1571, during which they worked together stitching the hangings. At that time, Mary was in the custody of Bess' husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury. The embroidered panels have been made into a wall hanging, two bed curtains, and a valance. This was probably not the original arrangement of that needlework and seems likely to have been sewn together in the late 17th Century. 

The designs were probably made and devised by a professional textile artist at her request and drawn on the canvas. The embroidered panels, of which there are over a hundred, were worked in cross stitch on canvas (see picture below). The designs of these panels were mostly based on four continental emblem books which Mary is reported to own. The designs were copied from wood-cut illustrations in books by well-known authors such as Claude Paradin, Conrad Gessner, and Pierre Belon. 

 Some of the designs featured were exotic and mythical animals copied from the woodcuts of a French book entitled, "Les Singularitez de la France Antartique." (Paris 1558). Details featured in the borders of some rectangular panels were derived from the engravings of Hans Vredeman de Vries. Some panels include a phoenix, which was the symbol of Mary's mother, "Marie of Guise," as well as a dragon, and a Unicorn which is the symbol of Scotland.

In conclusion: 

While perhaps not a common fiber art employed by the average Tudor woman in England, it appears safe to conclude that cross stitch is indeed a 16th Century form of embroidery, and I fully intend to include it in those fiber arts our group currently demonstrates!