In his book The Art of The Embroiderer, Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin, Designer to the King, defined embroidery as “adding the representation of such motifs as one chooses—flat in relief, in gold, silver, or colour, to the surface of a finished piece of cloth.” Embroidery was most often used to decorate men’s coats and vests (Figure 1) and the skirts of dresses, but gloves, shoes, and furniture could also be embroidered. Because of the high level of detail, labor, and skill necessary to create it, embroidery was certainly one of the most luxurious objects available in the eighteenth century.
Embroidery in the eighteenth century was, as one might imagine, done entirely by hand. The Corps de Brodeurs, the embroidery guild, was founded in Paris in 1272. Women and men both worked as embroiderers. An embroiderer in the Corps de Brodeurs would have to be highly trained and intelligent, for there was much to learn and master. They employed over twenty different embroidery styles. These ranged from the fairly common satin stitch to the incorporation of paillettes (sequins) and glass beads to the extremely rare ronde-bosse, a form of sculpted embroidery done in high relief. These varied kinds of embroidery all required different threads and needles as well. For example, chenille embroidery required two sorts of thread and a certain needle created just for chenille. The threads most often used were waxed silk, though fine cotton thread and gold and silver thread received a fair amount of use as well.
In a plate from Diderot’s Encyclopédie two women work in a brightly lit workshop. One woman stands at a large vertical frame. The other sits at a horizontal frame. They both seem relaxed and pleased to be working. The bottom half of the plate shows a series of tools used by embroiderers. (Figure 2.)Embroidery began with a pricked paper pattern from the Designer in the guild. The pattern was placed on the fabric and then pounced. Pounce was a light powder used for initially marking embroidery patterns on material. After the pattern was pounced, it was traced in India ink. Once the design was inked, the fabric was stretched on a large embroidery frame, as shown in Figure 2, and the actual needlework could commence. Precious metals, feathers, fur, and even the wings of beetles were integrated into more elaborate designs. (Figure 3)
Since it was so labor-intensive and costly, embroidery served chiefly as an embellishment on the clothes and furnishings of the upper class.[See “Chairs” in Luxury Objects in the Age of Marie Antoinette.] The ones who could afford a richly embroidered velvet suit did not own such a garment for mere aesthetic value. Embroidery also served as a status symbol. For instance, in the 1789 Moreau print La grande toilette, (Figure 4) we see a man in his chamber preparing for the day, surrounded by a lady and four other men.
The man’s outfit features some particularly florid embroidery along the cuffs, pockets, sleeves, and edges of the coat and vest. While some of the other men’s coats sport some embroidery, the man standing at the mantle has the most, and he definitely wears the fanciest pattern. It subtly sets him apart from the rest of the figures in the print and marks him as the one of the highest social standing.
In La Petite Toilette, another beautifully embroidered coat is being presented to the gentleman having his daily toilette (Figure 5). Several of the gentlemen present also sport embroidery on their coats and vests, displaying their wealth and prominence in society.
Goodman, Dena, Jennifer Popiel, and Sean Takats. The Encyclopedia of Diderot & D’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. University of Michigan, 2004. Web. 01 Nov. 2012. <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/did/>.
Saint-Aubin, Charles Geramin de, Designer to the King 1770. Art of the Embroiderer. Trans. and annotated Nikki Scheuer. Additional notes by Edward Maeder. Los Angeles County Museum of Art in association with David R. Godine, Boston and London, 1983.
Whitehead, John. The French Interior in the Eighteenth Century. Dutton Studio Books, 1993.
Paniers, baleines, et jabots. La Mode au XVIIIe siècle. Catalog of exhibit at Costume and Lace Museum, Brussels, 2012.
Court Suit. 1774-1793. Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, NY. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 31 October 2012
Dress (Robe à l’Anglaise). Back. 1784-1787. Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, NY. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 31 October 2012
Vest (Partial). 1780-1790. Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, NY. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 31 October 2012
Moreau (Le Jeune), Jean-Michel. Monument du costume physique et morale de la fin du dix-huitième siècle. 1789. Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA.