The godmother of botanical needlework

Gerda Bentgesson from Danish stitchery book
Wall hanging by Gerda Bengtsson, from Gerda Bengtsson’s Book of Danish Stitchery

As some of you know, I studied botany as a graduate student. I spent hours pouring over plant specimens, flipping through dichotomous keys, and learning terms like “stipules.” There were nights when my dreams were filled with swirling leaf shapes, fragile rootlets, and constellations of flowers.

Now, I dream of others things, but I have retained a love of plant forms. These shapes sometimes inspire my creative projects, but for true, breathtaking, botanically inspired work, I consult the books of Gerda Bengtsson. Published in the 1970’s and 1980’s her books are mostly out of print, but still, easy to find.

GB.rosamoyesii
Rosa Moyesii by Gerda Bengtsson. From Roses and Flowering Plants in counted cross-stitch.

Like 18th and 19th century botanical prints, Bengtsson’s designs show specific knowledge of plants and convey appreciation for the varieties of plant form. Yet, they are pretty and decorative.

GB.couluteaarborescens
Senna by Gerda Bengtsson. From Roses and Flowering branches in counted cross-stitch

Flowers and plants are often generic and stylized in needlework, however beautiful. In contrast, Bengtsson’s designs are botanically correct, but also balanced and artistic.

Mountain Ash by Gerda Bentgsson. From Dye PLants nad Fruits in Cross -stitch
Mountain Ash by Gerda Bengtsson. From Dye Plants and Fruits in Cross -stitch

Bengtsson worked mostly in cross-stitch, but much of her published work consists of charted designs that could also be used for needlepoint, and other mediums.

In my mind, Gerda Bengtsson is the godmother of all botanical needlework. When I tried to do a little online research, I didn’t find much. From her books I know she trained as a painter and later switched to textiles. She was also part of the Danish Handcraft guild.  My research did turn up a great pinterest board and many of her designs are available in cross stitch kits here.

Since I’m not much for cross-stitch, I mostly just pour over her books and swoon, but I did recently complete a Bentgesson-inspired embroidery piece. I’ll tell you about that in my next post.

8 thoughts on “The godmother of botanical needlework

  1. Oh how lovely – had never come across her work, so thanks for that! I’ve done a handful of classes on botanical painting and have a plant scientist for a father, so love that, as you say, her embroideries are botanically accurate while still being artistic. Looking forward to seeing your own piece.

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      1. Thank you, Catherine. I do know the work of Kazuko Aoki (swoon) but not Sadako Totsuka. I’ll have to the seek it out. Thank goodness for the internet!

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  2. Textile art and artists have always been rather overlooked don’t you think – probably a legacy of not taking ‘women’s work’ seriously. Glad you’ve made us aware of Gerda’s work, which as you say is remarkable.

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    1. Absolutely – there is a “crafts” vs. “arts” divide. Though, I do think she was quite the thing in her country and in her time. If only I spoke/read Danish and then I might learn more 😉

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