Home Beautiful: Domestic Embroidery 1900 - 1940

October 12, 2001 - January 27, 2002

Embroidery is an ancient art, going back to pre-historic times. Bead embroidery is found on objects recovered from ancient grave sites. Thread embroidery may date back to 3500 BCE, at which time it seems to have appeared in China. Textile embroidery spread from the far east and mid east to Europe, where it was widely practiced by medieval times.

Decorative surface embroidery on practical household linens came into vogue in America at the end of the 19th century. Few domestic items escaped adornment with some form of stichery created by the lady of the house. A birdcage cover and an umbrella holder, doilies and dishtowels, pillowcases and potholders are everyday embroidered objects that might have been in daily use in your grandmother's home.

Together with the tools needed to stitch them - hoops, threads, and transfer patterns - these lovingly decorated household linens can be seen in the laundry room, kitchen and pass-through to the dining room in the William's House at the Museum of American Heritage.


The designs of the Victorian era tended to be dark and heavy, but exhibitions of Japanese artifacts at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 exposed Americans to a new design aesthetic. Japanese inspired motifs appeared on wallpapers, ceramics, silver and textiles. Fans, vases, spiders with webs, butterflies and flowering tree branches were some of the more popular motifs. By the early 1900s, they were readily available on pre-stamped fabric or as transfers easily ironed onto cloth, allowing the stylish women of the 1920s a wide latitude of bright and colorful designs.

It is interesting to note that the Philadelphia event was the first world's fair to have the contributions of women as a major element, reflecting the rising influence of the suffragette movement.


Perforated patterns were printed on thick, stiff parchment-like paper with holes pricked along the pattern outlines. To transfer the designs to fabric, a chalk-like powder was rubbed over the holes with a piece of felt. This process was known as "pouncing".

Iron-on transfers were first shown at the Philadelphia Centennial and the referenced iron was, of course, a flat iron. The transfer ink came in blue or yellow, cut if neither of these would show well, the embroiderer was advised to baste the pattern to the fabric, stitch through both layers, and then tear away the paper. By the 1920s, magazines and maail order catalogs were offering hundreds of designs.

Stamped patterns were designs preprinted on the cloth. Many companies offered a choice between designs available as a paper pattern and the same design prestamped on the cloth.

Stamped and precolored kits were also available for the busy needlewoman. The design was quickly completed by stitching around the edge of the picture.


Before 1900, most embroidery threads were made of silk or linen. Silk was especially easy to dye in the synthetic colors developed in the last quarter of the 19th century.

Cotton embroidery threads, with colorfast dyes developed by German chemists, became widely available after World War I. Light and bright pastels then came to dominate the color schemes. The only cotton threads available in the 1902 Sears, Roebuck catalog were black, white, and turkey Red, explaining the popularity of redwork for articles needing regular laundering.


"Etching on linen", or outline embroidery, was popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was most often done with turkey red thread on white linen or muslin.

This linen shoe bag was offered in the 1902 Sears, Roebuck catalog, with an assortment of stamped designs. The price was 10 cents, with postage extra, 4 cents.

The crib quilt, 1913, shows typical animal and "Sunbonnet Sue" designs.


There are three basic types of embroidery stitches: flat , knotted , and linked & looped , with other types being variations of the basic three.

Flat stitches, including running, satin, and cross stitches, lie upon the surface of the fabric.

Knotted stitches, such as the French or Perkins knots, leave a raised or studded pattern on the surface.

Chain stitching, in which the first stitch is held in place by a subsequent stitch, is a linked stitch, while the blanket or buttonhole stich is a looped stitch.

Embroidery hoops

Embroidery is much easier if a hoop is used to keep the work taut. For simple household stitchery, two circular hoops are used, the fabric being trapped between them. Early hoops had no adjustments, so the inner hoop might be wrapped with a strip of cotton to obtain a better grip on the fabric.

Hard rubber hoops were manufactured in the 1920s and 1930s. Metal hoops were made with a spring that automatically adjusted the outer hoop against the cork or felt lined inner hoop. Wooden hoops with an outside screw for tightening the grip were the most effective and are still used today.

Aprons and embroidery

For generations of hardworking women, aprons symbolized a life of domestic duty. Workaday aprons wiped sweat off foreheads in steamy kitchens. They also stored clothes pins or held vegetables from the garden if the bottom was gathered up.

Aprons in the early decades of the 20th century and earlier were often full length, resembling the dresses they protected. During the Depression, aprons were often made from burlap sacks, men's shirts or old tablecloths. No matter the design, the urge to decorate was irresistable for many, and aprons were often livened up with embroidery, tatting or fancy stitchery. Hostess aprons, used for tea parties, bridge games and other social occasions, were made in sheer fabric with delicate embroidery.

Casual clothing gradually replaced aprons for household chores and hostess aprons became demeaning symbols for the feminist movement in the 1970s. But, today aprons are making a comeback as collectible textiles. They remind us of our mothers or grandmothers and serve as sentimental symbols of home, comfort, and less complex times.


Web Sites

Embroidery and Needlework Links A well organized list of links to related web sites.

Sharon Boggon Shareware site Stitchery lore

Stitch Glossary web site 175 stitches and how to do them.


The Art of Oriental Embroidery: Young Y. Chung, Charles ScribnerÂ’s Sons, NY, 1979

Designing for Needlepoint and Embroidery, from Ancient and Primitive Sources: Jan Messent, Macmillan Publishing, Co., Inc., NY, 1976

Mary Thomas Embroidery Book: Mary Thomas, Dover Publications, NY, 1983

The New Century for Woman: Woman's Centennial Committee, International Exhibition, Philadelphia. Philadelphia, Pa.: The Committee, 1876

Victorian Embroidery: Barbara Morris, Universe Books, New York, NY, 1962


Stitch illustrations: Sharon Boggon

All trademarks, service marks and copyrights are the property of their owners.

Our Special Thanks

The Museum is indebted to many individuals and institutions for this exhibit. We commend and thank in particular:

Curators and exhibit designers: Kim Pack, Beryl Self

Exhibit items contributed by:
Sue Beaver
Doris Hoover
Evelyn Kmetovic
Bev Nelson
Kim Pack
Andi Sandstrom
Beryl Self
Bonnie Stone

Exhibits Committee:

Chair: Bill Wehrend
Art Adams
Sue Beaver
Dick Clark
Ralph Igler
Bob Katzive
Monroe Postman
Theodora Nelson

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This page last updated November 16, 2001
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