Embroidered with white – The 18th century fashion for Dresden lace and other whiteworked accessories by Heather Toomer

A Book Review

Embriodered Whitebook

Embroidered with White: The 18th Century Fashion for Dresden Lace and Other Whiteworked Accessories by Heather Toomer

There is a painting by Gilbert Stuart at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C. of the redoubtable Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, attired in a beautifully embroidered white work fichu.  This article of apparel with its delicately embroidered swirls of tiny floral motifs must have been prized for Abigail to wear it for her portrait.1


Gilbert Stuart detail: Abigail Smith Adams (Mrs. John Adams), 1800/1815 *

White Work Embroidery as a topic is like a giant tree with many branches. Traditional Hardanger, Reticella, Mountmellick Embroidery, Drawn and Pulled thread work, Ayrshire work are some of the different embroidery techniques that are classified as being worked with white thread on a white ground. This reviewer will confess up front a natural predilection to this method as Access Commodities has always stocked items such as fine linens (shadow work linen and linen cambric), linen and silk threads of various sizes, awls, wooden embroidery hoops, embroidery design transfers and even white beeswax to support this kind of needlework endeavor.

It has been more than 20 years since the publication of Barbara Dawson’s, White Work Embroidery, which was organized in a sort of encyclopedia format that addressed in broad terms this very large subject.3  As embroiderers of the 21st century, we are very far removed from the importance of white as a color, and how labor intensive it was to maintain its snowy appearance in an era without chemical bleach and detergent. Furthermore, hand embroidery as a means of clothing embellishment is such an foreign concept to most embroiderers of my acquaintance that one seldom sees it done today except by individuals or for recreating period garments for re-enactment events. This is a lamentable state of affairs that one hopes this book will begin to address with its incredible examples for inspiration.

There are many things to like about this book. First it tackles a subject and needlework technique not usually addressed by dress historians or writers about the history of embroidery except in a very general way.  In the 18th century white work embroidery, especially Dresden work with its intricately delicate geometric filling stitches was a highly prized fashionable accessory item that was eagerly sought by all levels of society, and worn by both sexes, Ms. Toomer, advises the reader. In fact white work embroidery was sold alongside the much more expensive lace in the same shop, according to Santina Levey.4 Cascading ruffles at the elbow (engageantes), dainty borders on the edge of a kerchief (fichu), a filmy apron edged with flowers, or densely worked quilting down the front of a waistcoat; all of these were ornamental flourishes considered a necessary adjunct to fashionable attire for persons of rank.  One of my favorite illustrations that pictures the pervasiveness of white work is on page 90 showing as the author describes, “two ladies and  two women of lesser rank…All four women wear white aprons and white kerchiefs…”

While there are lots of illustrations of the embroidered clothing pieces and even a small  representation of white work samplers throughout this book, as an embroiderer one particularly appreciates the extra attention given to providing some diagrams and patterns (in inches) by Elspeth Reed.  There are also some pictures that show both the front and back of the work, as well as an unfinished appliqué piece, on page 12 which is most informative.

The photographs of period paintings (like the one on the book’s cover) and engravings, demonstrate with commentary how the separate clothing elements were worn.   The author also carefully delineates how to identify the different types of white work from the density of the executed design (which gradually diminished), the type of article and kind of stitch used.  She also makes the point that while embroidered white work may have begun as an imitation of the extravagantly expensive laces worn by the nobility, Dresden work in particular developed its own design motifs independent of lace as time passed.

This book is not a material culture study of white work embroidery of the 18th century. However, the author’s bibliography provides further sources for one to obtain if one is inclined.  As an embroiderer, I would have appreciated a more attention to types and kinds of materials used for the items pictured.  For example, were there a variety of sizes of threads used with the different stitches? Was the size of the finished articles dictated by the size of the looms of the ground fabric?  Ms. Toomer alludes several times to other articles of dress such as white work caps that deserve their own book, and it is my sincere hope she will continue her research and publishing on this fascinating subject.

Finally, we are also stocking the author’s book, Baby Wore White, Robes for special occasions 1800-1910.

BabyWore Book Cover

Baby Wore White: Robes for Special Occasions, 1800-1910 by Heather Toomer

Some of the items for White Work embroidery available from Access Commodities:

Stock No.                        Description
FBR 10800                     Shadow Work Linen
FBR 10900                     Linen Cambric
FBR 10100                     Ecclesiastical Linen
FBR 10500                     Alba Maxima 40 count linen
XSE 1473                       Bohin Mechanical Pencil
XSE 3030                       White Beeswax
XSE 8032                       Tapered Awl
XSE 8036                       Straight Awl
LNS                                Londonderry Linen Thread in 5 sizes.
SPS BLANC                     Au Ver A Soie, Soie Perlee Blanc
SGS BLANC                     Au Ver A Soie, Soie Gobelins Blanc
PAT 1510                        Festons Assortis en Broderie Blanche, Art de Broderie
PAT 1530                        Broderie Richelieu et l’Anglaise, Art de Broderie
BKK 1426                       Beginners Guide to Mountmellick Embroidery
BKK 3520                       Fleurs en Transferts
BKK 4037                       La Broderie Blanche, Jours et dentelles
BKK 4035                       La Broderie Blanche
BKK 4506                       Points de Broderie Blanche

As a coda, there is a Master Craftsman program called:  Plain and Fancy Needlework, which is a “self-study” correspondence course of 6 steps offered by the Embroiderer’s Guild of America.  This is a very affordable opportunity to learn and receive critiques on your work by a teacher who is an expert in that area of expertise.   Some of the “steps”  for this course are shadow work, fine handsewing, monogramming and cutwork.

Go to:  egausa.org and click on Education Catalog.  See page 9

1 The date of this portrait is 1800/1815, meaning it was begun in 1800 but not finished until 1815.  A fact that John Quincy Adams, Abigail’s son and the 6th president of the United States complained in a letter to John Singleton Copley, another artist commissioned to do a painting of  his father,  John Adams.  “Mr. Stuart thinks it the prerogative of genius to disdain the performance of his engagements.”  See “The domestic and artistic life of John Singleton Copley, R.A.” by Martha Babcock Amory, 1970, pg. 89.

2 Copyright © 2009 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC http://www.nga.gov/fcgi-bin/timage_f?object=42934&image=7645&c=gg60a
3 In the introduction of her book, Barbara describes her book “a personal arrangement in order to find a way through the labyrinth of the different type of white embroidery.”  And although she disavowed the use of the description of the book as an encyclopedia or dictionary, it has been my “go to” guide for the subject simply because nothing else on White Work embroidery by hand has been published since.  

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