There is a big part of us that would like to believe that we are innovators. We’d like to think that our needlepoint uses lots more stitches, more threads, and more colors than ever before. But while some of this is true, it is to a far lesser extent than we might think.
While it’s nice to think that needlepoint before the 1970’s was all Tent Stitch, wool, and pre-worked pieces, it just isn’t true. We have many more threads to use than Victorians but at the height of the Berlinwork craze there were nearly 1000 colors of wool available to embroiderers. In addition some threads, such as DMC floss or Au Ver a Soie silk, have colors that have been in production for centuries. Today we have more threads, but not more colors.
We often think that there is a great explosion of stitches and, once again, we find lots to use. But many of the stitches we use have been around for centuries. I was reading a book about old embroidery and found these stitches listed in a poem from 1640: Fern Stitch, Chain Stitch, Irish Stitch (Bargello), Queen Stitch, Back Stitch, and Cross Stitch.
Because samplers served as the stitch dictionaries of earlier times, in examples from the same period you’ll find, among others, even more stitches familiar to us, including: Algerian Eye, Herringbone, Double, Brick, and Hungarian.
While stitch dictionaries are not old, pattern books are. You can find ones dating back to the Renaissance. Dover and Lacis republish some of these. To our eyes that are used to computer-generated charts, they look a bit crude. but they are still stitchable.
The Victorians loved their needlework and published many books and magazines with projects and patterns of all kinds. While projects that are specifically needlepoint seem to be sparse, there is great stuff here. I have even found Four-way Bargello patterns dating from the early 1900″s!
Yes today we combine the aspects of needlepoint and the many resources available to us in exciting ways but, like Isaac Newton, we can say that we see so far because we stand on the “shoulders of giants.”