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Finding Women in History Through Sewing


Of late, I have become fascinated with historical fiction novels that accurately depict the story of little known women in the midivil ages up through the American Civil War.  I love the ways that they work the everyday details of their lives into the stories and how you get to see how much the little things like their sewing and tapestry work influenced their households and even nations.  So much of women’s history is recorded in the sewing, knitting and the other household tasks that they did, even and perhaps especially that done by women of royal and noble households whose work was much better recorded.  It is a great shame that for much of the history of humanity, women have not had the opportunities afforded them to read or write that their male counterparts did, but more & more historians and writers are piecing together the lives of these great women through the work of their hands, noble and common.

In a number of posts here, I will share some research that I have done on one sewing technique or another that I have been introduced to in these historical novels (all categorized under HISTORY OF QUILTING).  Today it’s BLACKWORK EMBROIDERY- also known as SPANISH EMBROIDERY because it was brought to England by Cathrine of Aragon, the first wife of the infamous King Henry VIII.

Blackwork embroidery was something that I first became aware of when reading Philippa Gregory’s novel, “The Constant Princess,” which is the very sad, but absolutely entrancing tale of Cathrine of Aragon. (Note: this is an affiliate link.  If you purchase the book through Amazon, I may get a small commission from the sale.)

“The Constant Princess” begins by diving into some of the conquests of Cathrine of Aragon’s parents, King Ferdinand & Queen Isabella of Spain during Cathrine’s childhood.  I was fascinated by the description of how they took the palace at Alhambra from the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada (Arabs/Turks to my understanding) in what is now known as the Reconquista- (translated re-conquest).  I never knew much detail of the Christian Pilgrimages to take back land in or around the Middle East that had fallen to non-believers, being Jews and Arabs, but this telling gives the reader a some idea of what they were like & why they were fought.

The battles that Cathrine- the Infanta of Spain- saw her mother take part in and plan as a child shaped her for her role as Queen of England.  This book paints a picture of the warmth of the Spanish/Arab lands as well as the intelligence of the native people- their knowledge of mathematics & medicine- of cleanliness & regular bathing, which she finds rather lacking when she goes to England!  It also shows how her mother, Queen Isabella was every inch the ruler that her father King Ferdinand was, & how she had just as much to do with the conquests of their reign as he did.  Gregory’s book paints Isabella as a strong and decisive woman who prepared her daughters to be, not only queens, but rulers & even conquerers!


The story interweaves the strength of decisive women born to lead with the ability to still be associated with those things which we think of as soft & feminine, such as sewing & fine embroidery.  Queen Cathrine lead an army to victory & ruled a country in her husband’s absence (covered in the book).  She was the rod that kept him straight & on an even course for nearly 2 decades.  He only falters when he veers away from her.  She could do all of that- & influence a sewing style that would grace nearly every fabric surface in England & beyond for 200 years.

In our modern world, we tend to separate the strong women built for leadership roles from traditional crafts, like sewing and quilting, that are considered “soft & feminine.”  We have decided that any traditional art represents the weakness & subjugation of women, but they don’t have to.  Strong women can quilt.  Women who lead can sew.  One does not deter the other…


This is a bit of a soapbox for me, I suppose.  There was a video going around Facebook recently of a female Astronaut who was quilting in space.  (Awesome, right?!?)  I was dismayed & quite angry to find that she was utterly & completely ATTACKED by other women online for it!  Quilting was something she loved, something she was good at- & something she was scientifically testing to see how her hobby was different in space as opposed to on earth with gravity- and there were women there beating her down for it because it was a traditional craft.  Fortunately, there were many more women from a worldwide quilting family who were happy to jump in & try to help problem solve + offer encouragement & support.  They poured out a myriad of solutions & ideas for the road blocks she was running into with plenty of encouragement & admiration.  That’s what I love about quilting- everyone trades ideas & encourages one another.  That’s what women should do.  Quilting & sewing doesn’t make us weak- it makes us strong.

Back to the book!

The author often describes the daily activities of the women in Queen Catherine’s household- the sewing they did for the Church & for charity, as well as for babies to be born & family.  It is interesting to note that making things- particularly beautiful & highly skilled sleeves, embellishments & tapestries was the work of queens & noblewomen.  It was the work of women in leadership positions!  I also loved how the author noted the way these things were received when given as gifts & the difference a handmade gift could make in someone’s life- even someone as rough as King Henry.

Greggory notes that one of Henry’s favorite gifts from Catherine was a shirt with blackwork embroidery.  It was unusual to the English court, but quite beautiful & prized- a gift of culture as well as labor & love.

If we look at the history books, we can see that Henry was not the only person impressed with her native embroidery patterns & skills.  Blackwork embroidery spread quickly throughout the English court, decorating sleeves, hems, caps, shirts, and even cushions.  It was comprised of geometric stitches sometimes filling in floral outlines.  It can now be seen in more colors than just black- hence the name has shifted to reference the stitching style & not just the black thread on white cotton or linen design that it began as.

The painter Hans Holbein the younger- famous in King Henry VIII’s court at the end of Queen Cathrine’s reign & into that of Anne Boleyn’s- apparently also influenced the craft as the Holbein stitch (often used in blackwork) is named after him.

(Blackwork Embroidery Holbein Stitch on Shirt of Hans Holbein)

Blackwork embroidery seems to have reached its height of fashion during Queen Elizabeth’s reign a generation later.  It can be seen in paintings on dresses covering the sleeves, skirt, & bodice of many upperclass women as well as the queen herself.  When I look at pictures like that & think of how many hours it would take to stitch such intricate designs into a huge skirt or sleeve I can understand why it was a symbol of wealth.  Hans Holbein, the painter that one of the blackwork stitches is known for, by comparison only has blackwork stitching on his collar!


Queen Elizabeth Blackwork Dress

Mary Cornwallis Blackwork Dress


I wonder, but haven’t yet found examples of what Blackwork embroidery looked like before Cathrine of Aragon brought it to England.  I suspect that it has some Arab origins or influence because “The Constant Princess” references the geometry & mathematical knowledge of the natives of her country.  Many of the native patterns that were there prior to the Spanish Conquests were geometric in nature & Greggory’s book paints Catherine as one who LOVED the native culture of her land- including the geometric designs of the palace at Alhambra.


After having fallen in love with “The Constant Princess” & being entirely entranced with how the quiet work of Queen Cathrine’s hands influenced a nation & is still popular in many countries today (her military conquests aside!), I am determined to try mixing some blackwork stitching into my Yosaic™ designs.  Stay tuned for pictures!


If you’re interested in learning more about Blackwork Embroidery, here are a few books on Amazon to get started with. (Affiliate links)

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The Quilting Lies I Told Me


One of the most common phrases I hear when I’m demonstrating or talking with perspective students for art, quilting, or any hand craft is,

“I wish I could do that, but I just don’t have the patience…”

And it’s true.  Part of what we have lost in modern society are the values of patience and persistence that are learned through handcraft and cottage industry arts.


The concept that “children should just have time to be children” is extremely new and is leading us towards a society that doesn’t know how to take care of itself.  For millennia, children were part of the family industry from age 4-5 on up.  It is well documented that not more than 100 years ago, children were required to knit a certain amount of rows on a stocking or sew a certain amount on the family tally before they were allowed to go out to play (“No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting” by Anne Macdonald).  They had chores and responsibilities- and it was good for them.  They developed patience and persistence in trying and trying again until they gained proficiency in a skill or craft.  They had pride in being part of their family’s survival and in being depended upon.  They grew up self-sufficient and able to care for younger brothers and sisters at a very early age.


So, yes- there’s a reason that so many people today feel like they just don’t have the patience for sewing, quilting, knitting and other forms of handcraft.  They haven’t learned to try and try again, and to keep on trying until they become proficient at a skill because they haven’t been taught.  Fortunately, there’s a cure for that!

  1. Just start- knowing that it’s going to take some persistence at first.
  2. Choose initial projects that are small and quick to finish.
  3. Progress to harder projects that build both skill and your will to work on something that takes more time.


We are too used to instant gratification in our society today & I think it can have a negative impact on us mentally.  Traditional arts and crafts remind us to slow down and get involved in enjoying the process of something.  They provide healing from modern stresses and mental storms.

That being said, if you do try a form of needle craft and are completely frustrated with it, there may be a reason outside of our new societal norms that many will never consider.  That is to say that different forms of fine art and craft have different intrinsic rewards and it depends on what you are individually motivated by as to what you will enjoy.  What does that mean?  Here are a few examples to help you sort it out.


Someone like myself who likes to take on extremely long term projects (See the waterfall quilt at the beginning of this post!) that are often intricate as well as repetitive is motivated by the enjoyment of the process itself.  This type of person often enjoys the rhythm of the work.  They will likely enjoy knitting and crocheting in addition to hand embroidery or hand quilting.  They don’t mind how long it takes to complete a project.  The process of working on it is the reward itself.


Someone like my cousin’s wife is driven by the exact opposite- the completion of a finished project.  She rarely works on more than one project at a time and often makes the same pattern over and over and over again because each repetition of it gives her greater speed.  She feels like she has accomplished something when she completes a quilt or project and flies through several per week!  AMAZING, right?!


I would be extremely frustrated if I took her approach and she would be very discouraged if she took mine.  If you have an interest in something- enough to say, “I wish I could do that,” you probably have a talent in it that can be developed.  The trick is in staying with something long enough to know whether it is simply not the right type of hand craft for you- or if you just need some time to develop your skills.  It takes real courage to let yourself fail at something when you first attempt it and to continue to persist until you can find the joy- whether it is in the process or the completion of the project.


Think about the kinds of things that you already like to do.  If you are more mathematical and precise, you will probably like something with a pattern and instructions.  You may be one who needs to finish one project before starting another.  You may like the precision of using a machine instead of hand-sewing.  Blocking out time specifically for your sewing might be important in making it an enjoyable experience.  Following the pattern precisely and having perfection in your finished piece is likely to be what gives you satisfaction.  You may become easily frustrated if there aren’t sufficient instructions or if you don’t have a pattern or class to follow.  Or, you may master each step before you start to invent your own patterns or make variations.  You probably get frustrated when someone else doesn’t do it the “right way.”  And that’s okay.  That’s your mojo.  Go with the flow!

Close-up of Yosaic™ Quilting


On the flip side, if you are more artistic and free-spirited, you may want to learn handcrafts that allow you to make a lot of modifications on the fly.  (Yosaic™ Quilting is great for this!). You’re likely to be someone who has a number of projects going at once- which is perfectly fine!  In fact, once upon a time I thought there was something wrong with me for having so many projects in progress and made myself finish them all before I started new ones.  I have never been more depressed or artistically uninspired in my life!  I discovered that flowing from project to project is what kept my creative juices flowing.  So– good news!  There’s NOTHING wrong with that!  Work it, Girl!  Work it!  You’ll probably carry your projects with you and be perfectly fine with multi-tasking, getting in a few stitches here and there at the ballpark, in a waiting room, or wherever you have a chance.  You’ll see opportunities and ideas everywhere.  Something that has a precise pattern will probably frustrate you.  No worries.  Go with what you enjoy.


And, that’s basically the secret.  If you don’t have the “patience” for something that you wish you could do, it’s either the wrong type of art or it’s time to learn patience simply from doing it- the same way our ancestors did for thousands and thousands of years.  If you experiment, you’ll figure it out.  Good luck & have fun!