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ICOULD just about sew a button onto a shirt, but the Business Manager (Mrs P) is a wizard with a needle - I can hear the sewing machine chattering away as I write. But even she would be hard pressed to produce embroidered pictures like the ones illustrated here.

They date from the middle of the 17th century - around the time of the Great Fire of London, when Charles II was king, to put things into context - and a more appealing way to own a piece of history is hard to find.

A selection will be on display at Chester Antiques Show later this month (see panel) offering the opportunity to take one home. Despite their fragility and relative rarity, many are still affordable, even to people like us with champagne taste and beer pocket money.

They belong to dealers Richard and Susannah Midwinter, from Market Drayton, Shropshire, to whom I turned for help in understanding the vagaries and technical terms that can make early needlework embroidery confusing for the uninitiated.

Arguably the most beautiful but hardest to master was stumpwork, raised, or "embosted" embroidery, a highly sophisticated threedimensional technique, probably derived from "stampwork" in which the embroidery was worked over a pre-drawn and padded outline on backing material, usually satin.

First seen in 15th century ecclesiastical needlework, stumpwork became a fashionable pastime around the time of the English Civil War (1642-1651) when it was the preserve of wealthy households.

If your family was rich enough, you employed the travelling embroiderers - men who were members of the Broderers' Guild - to make the household furnishings, while you, the wife or daughter of the house, spent your time making dainty chair covers, fireside panels and pictures for the walls.

Do-it-yourself kits were available containing among other things silver and gold thread; silk, chenille, worsted and cotton threads with silver and gold wire running through it; coloured wools and satin ribbons; tassels, spangles, seed pearls and semi-precious stones; coral, seashells and mother of pearl; kid leather; peacock feathers; vellum, mica, and scraps of treasured fabrics.

The technique that produced such a unique effect involved padding the embroidery to varying degrees so that each element in the design stood out from the background.

The result was a series of padded stumps of embroidery with shape and texture that must have taken hour upon hour of painstaking work.

Subject matter included religious scenes indicating Puritanism and political symbols evocative of the period around the divisions during the Civil War such as caterpillars, oak trees, acorns and butterflies indicating support for Charles I and the Restoration.

Other motifs have been interpreted as follows: a lion for strength; stag, divine influence; dog, fidelity; parrot, wisdom; silk worm, industry; butterfly, joy; snail, patience; hen and chickens, maternal love.

Although not common today, stumpwork does come on to the market. More often than not, it is framed and glazed to be hung on the wall as pictures, but pieces also appear as cushions. Perhaps the most sought after, however, are those worked on the outside of jewellery or sewing caskets and small, lidded boxes intended for dressing tables.

As you might expect, these are also among the most expensive of all examples of early needlework. Be prepared to spend upwards of PS4,000-6,000 for an example of reasonable size and condition, while work displaying particularly vibrant colours not faded by daylight and those depicting identifiable figures such as Charles I and his devoted queen Henrietta Maria of France; King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and characters from the Bible attract a premium.

Unlike Victorian embroidered samplers, which are invariably worked with the name of the maker, almost all 17th-century embroidery is anonymous. An exception is a casket now in the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, worked with the initials of Hannah Smith, who documented its construction, completed between 1654 and 1656.

The art of stumpwork continues today with embroiders embracing more contemporary themes, as does so-called crewelwork, one of the earliest forms of surface stitching, although designs tend to echo those developed in the 17th century.

Crewel is a thin, smooth worsted wool two-ply yarn used for tapestrystyle embroidery.

It was often spun at home. Crewelwork is one of the earliest forms of embroidery, said to be at least a thousand years old, in which the design is worked in the wool on a background of plain or twill linen or other cloth. It was in vogue from about 1650-1710.

Decorative wall and bed hangings, curtains and cushions in the homes of the rich was the most popular use, reflecting the desire for more plush and exotic furnishings from customers who became more widely travelled. It was also popularly used for jackets and waistcoats.

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Like stumpwork, designs included the Tree of Life and stylised forests, featuring exotic plants and populated by birds, stags, squirrels, and other animals.

Pattern books were available commercially as sources for designs, but many needlewomen made up their own, combining elements from different patterns and introducing fantastic and amusing motifs of naive charm. I've seen one showing a mermaid sheltering beneath flowers.

At first the work was done in a single colour, usually blue or green, the decoration being taken from the painted calicoes being imported from India, China and Persia.

However, soon worsteds in myriad colours were being used, bringing richness and brightness to otherwise gloomy interiors, although, after 1710, finer and more delicate coloured silks soon replaced worsteds.

Sadly, by its nature, stump and crewelwork is fragile and extremely difficult to restore, the expert attention needed to repair damage being time-consuming and costly. Sunlight is the major enemy, and its bleaching effect will reduce values considerably.
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Publication:Daily Post (Conwy, Wales)
Date:Oct 8, 2016
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