Thursday, August 23, 2012

Crazy, Catty Stitching in 1884

In 1884 Mrs. Mary Haehnlen penned "A Book of Fancy Designs for Ornamenting Oriental Work".  In 24 pages she describes about 70 ornamental stitches, and combinations of stitches.  These combinations of stitches and their higglety pigglety placement is an extension of the art of crazy quilting, so popular in Mrs. Haehnlen's day.
Our friend Mary writes with a tone typical of craft publications from this period.  Assuming, and a little pompous, I really enjoy reading and working from these kinds of books.

From the Introduction:
"Where is no work more popular at the present time than Oriental or "crazy" work; though I don't think there has ever been a book printed with designs in stitches for ornamenting it.  I have tried to put all the prettiest ones I could design in this book, and do not think they will need much explanation, though for the benefit of beginners I will explain all I can.  Some very handsome work is being done in black silk pieces, put together the same as the ordinary crazy work, and the stitches put on in the same way.  

Have your pieces nicely pressed out and lay them out on new paper cambric****, then press them once more before you begin your stitches.  Be sure to overcast all the edges so they will not fray out.  

You will find a variety of stitches and designs on the coloured plate not in the book that will give you some idea how to finish off corners.  These directions are only for those who have not made any of this work.  The stitches on the following pages need very little work.  

The stitches on the following pages need very little explanation, as those that are numbered are all very simple, and are only put in that it may be more convenient for you to make the others by referring to them."

Her instructions are vague, and her first instructions are aptly catty:
"Nos. 1 and 2 are the common straight and cat stitches, and every one knows how to make them."

Ahhh, the cat stitch. Everyone knows that one, right? Well maybe everyone did in 1884, but not everyone would have the same stitch in mind. In the world of Victorian embroidery this stitch goes by a few different names: Cat Stitch, Brier Stitch, Coral Stitch, Catch Stitch, Feather Stitch and variations therein.

Unfortunatly, even in Victorian needlework, there are many other stitches that also lay claim to the name of Cat Stitch, and to the name of the other stitches I have mentioned.

In the case of A Book of Fancy Work for Ornamenting Oriental Work, 'cat stitch' is a modern herringbone stitch.  The 'feather stitch' it employs has nothing to do with Opus Plumicarium.

Instructions for more complicated stitches are only slightly more helpful.  Example:
"No 9, make the same as cat - stitch, only put the needle in up and down instead of across. No. 10 is made the same as feather stitch."

It is understood that the Victorian embroiderer would read this and substitute her stitch preference for any one of these stitches.

Still, the stitches themselves are simple, after some updating of terminology. It is the combinations of these stitches that are unique. Also surprising to a modern eye are the vibrant and contrasting colours used. New dyes introduced in this industrial era made many more colours available, and those colours were now much more saturated and were much brighter. Needlework became more lively as well, as can be seen in Berlin work and other needlepoint methods that used German Wools.

Despite the Victorian craze for the Oriental (thank you Mr.Vantine and assorted Mitfords) I was surprised to find that this 'crazy' style was considered Asian.  Because of their Quilting tradition, I had always associated crazy stitching with the American South and assumed that it's popularity in this period was due to the matereral shortages of the Civil War.
Oh Ashley!

-Reviewed for Antique Pattern Library's Collection

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