Dreaming of the past and 19th century whitework

white work embroidery petticoat 1800s

In June, I wrote about growing up in an 1830’s house filled with antiques and artifacts – top hats, handkerchiefs, tortise shell combs, musty books, and one delicately-embroidered whitework petticoat. After that post, my mother gave me a box of aged papers – embroidery designs, hand-drawn by my several-times-great grandmother, the creator of the whitework petticoat.

whitework patterns 1800s

I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to write about these designs, because I was pretty excited to leaf through the box. The papers are yellowed, and crackly and the drawings are light, sweet, charming.

whitework pattern

Many are hand-sketched in pencil, others in ink, and two are printed designs, clipped from an unidentified publication. So, when I recently stumbled across this post by E.K. Duncan on regency embroidery patterns in Ackerman’s repository, I knew it was time to sit down and write about this little cache of history.

Ackermans table of contents

Published in London from 1809-1829, Ackerman’s Repository was an influential journal that covered arts, literature, commerce, manufactures, fashions, and politics. As needlework was still quite fashionable at that time, Ackerman’s  included a needle work design, or as listed above, a muslin pattern. (Hat tip to Jennifer Jermantowicz for compiling this handy index to Ackerman’s repository, and to archive.org for making this amazing resource available to everyone!)

The relationship between the Ackerman’s designs and these hand-drawn designs is clear. Both show medallions, fantastical flowers, and dainty scalloped edges.

The creator of these drawings and the petticoat, Elizabeth Victor Hammond, lived 1800-1870. After she found herself a widow in 1832, she moved from a nearby farm to what became our family house in a small Maryland town. In the late 1970s, living in the same house, my parents found the drawings packed in a wooden box, along with the petticoat, Elizabeth’s wedding shoes (dated 1820), another piece of whitework, and a few unfinished pieces of a brown calico quilt.

That’s the story of these objects, as I know it. As for Elizabeth Victor Hammond, she spent the rest of her life in the same house, with leisure enough to engage in needlework but certainly not at the height of fashion. She never remarried, outlived three of her four children, but lived to see her youngest son prosper as the town’s doctor.

EVH wedding shoes 1820

I know those rough outlines of Elizabeth Victor Hammond’s life, but when I handle those tiny delicate shoes, or sift through those drawings, I yearn to know more, to see how she handled and cared for these objects, to feel the texture of her life. In The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund deWaal traces the history of his grandmother’s family through objects, specifically a collection of Japanese netsuke. At the outset of this book, deWaal writes,

“I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I’m rolling between my fingers… and where it has been.… I want to walk into each room where this object has lived, to feel the volume of the space, to know what pictures were on the walls, how the light fell from the windows. And I want to know who’s hands it has been in, and what they felt about it, and thought about it – if they thought about it. I want to know what it has witnessed.” 

close of of embroidery pattern ink 1800s

So, what about all those papers filled with carefully rendered designs? Were these the cherished creations of Elizabeth Victor Hammond’s youth, saved and carried to her new home? Were they packed up after the death of her husband, when she moved to town, and then left in the attic? Or was embroidery a lifelong occupation and pastime? Did she continue to design and stitch whitework later in life, even as styles changed?

details from whitework petticoat

And what about that petticoat? Since it was stored with her wedding shoes, I like to imagine she wore it on her wedding day in 1820. Did she wear it under a gown like this? Or this? Or this? Or possibly under many different gowns at different times in her life? What else did she stitch? Handkerchiefs? Waistcoats? A reticule like one of these?

However she wore the petticoat and whatever these objects meant to Elizabeth in her lifetime, these papers, petticoat, and slippers are a source of mystery and inspiration in mine.

10 thoughts on “Dreaming of the past and 19th century whitework

  1. Fascinating! How wonderful that your parents lived in the same house and discovered those drawings, untouched all those years in the attic! They look so tactile to sort through too. An amazing link to your relative who invested so much of her time and imagination into these pieces.

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    1. You said it better than I did, Cally. Tactile is eaxctly the right word and yes there’s a lot of time and imagination in them. I also think its so interesting that that’s what it seems many women did at that time. Thanks for visiting!

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  2. A couple of weeks ago, I visited the RSN exhibition at Ely Cathedral and was – yet again – enraged to see just how few items were attributed to a particular maker/embroiderer – even items which were really quite modern, so the fact that you have these pieces and some of the story behind them, even with so many unanswered questions, is still remarkable, and in my opinion, very important in reflecting the works of our ancestors. Since going to Ely, I’ve vowed to make sure that at least basic information is available about the pieces I make,- there were so many questions I wanted to ask about the making of those pieces – the lives the stitchers led and what they thought about the works they created. Perhaps we owe it to our descendants to provide a little more detail ourselves.

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    1. Interesting. Next time I’m at a museum I’ll definitely take note of attributions for needlework – whether they are there or not. As for documenting the present for the future, I think it all depends on the internet – if all the photos, text, etc. gets lost in a jumble, or not. If its all still there in 100+ years it would be painstking to comb through all the threads for a story, no? The future might suffer from too much information that still doesn’t tell them what they want to know.

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