Welcome back to our ongoing series taking a look at the very intriguing 17th century cushion cover in the collection at the MFA Boston. In past posts, we’ve discussed different ways to date this piece through color, material, and visual motifs, as well as the remarkable woman who collected this piece and many, many others and donated them to the museum. Today, we’re going to take a look at the different skill levels and techniques reflected in the embroidery itself.
What is remarkable to the perspective of a needle worker is the variety of styles of the appliques. There are five separate clusters of grapes in different techniques (long and short stitch, tent stitch) using different color combinations. There are several strawberries, again worked in different techniques (queen’s stitch, basket weave, tent stitch) in different color combos. There are two very different stags. Additionally, some of the motifs are worked flat against ground cloth and others are carefully padded and raised like the towers, swans, or the ships on roiling seas.
Where we do find consistency is in the color and type of threads used throughout. But note that the actual technique in the stitching itself is inconsistent. In quality and expertise we have the two stags to compare. It would be very hard to believe that the person who worked the stag on the right was the same person who masterfully executed the basket weave and couched stag head and neck above.
The inconsistency continues through the various fruits and flowers executed in demonstrably different skill levels but worked with the same colors and types of thread. We can make a reasonable assumption that these pieces were most likely worked by two different women in the same household. Were they two sisters sitting side by side and sharing a work basket, each working to their different skill levels, contributing to the same piece? Were they an older woman in the household like a mother, aunt, or cousin teaching a young girl her skills, demonstrating skills and techniques using the same skeins of silk and pattern books? While we can’t say for certain since we don’t have any definitive information, embroidery at this time period was very much a group activity so we can feel free to conjure a domestic scene of many hands working together.