Powerful Women in Needlework
Women are often dismissed in many arenas, their accomplished overlooked or ignored, and yet we know that women make up half the world’s population and contribute a huge amount of good and productivity to that world. We think about embroidery as one of these things.
Esther Inglis was a fascinating woman. She lived in England in the 16th century and was a member of an artistic family and a prolific artist herself. Esther was a miniaturist, a calligrapher, embroiderer, and writer. Her beautiful works still exist 500 years later, a testament to her skill and achievement.
Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, also known as Bess of Hardwick, is one of our favorite women in history. She was a powerhouse: she founded a long-lasting familial dynasty and built a vast amount of wealth through the force of her personality and intelligent decisions. She has in turn been maligned as a shrew and unfeminine and rediscovered to be a complex and influential woman. She loved embroidery, practiced it herself, employed middle class women as professional needleworkers, fostered the practice within her own household, encouraged upper class women to the art, and collected a vast amount of it.
Elizabeth Day McCormick (1873-1957) was a prolific textile collector born into a wealthy Chicago family and spent her life being inspired by European and world art and culture. While she was conventionally educated and lived most of her life as a standard socialite-hostess-philanthropist-tastemaker, we suspect she was a bit of an iconoclast with bohemian tendencies. She never married and in the 1920s (when she was in her 50s) she moved out of her family’s home and into her own chic Chicago apartment, surrounded by her growing art collection. Elizabeth was drawn to an artistic lifestyle, was praised as a textile artist in her own right, and ran a studio where she trained girls in needlework and lace with the idea of giving them the ability to earn a living. Her work in embroidery gave her an expert eye in textiles and needlework in specific. She spent time living in Paris, collecting a vast trove of paintings, ceramics, jewelry, furniture, and noteably, an extensive collection of textiles before leaving in a hurry in 1939, recognizing the danger of Hitler’s move across Europe.
Back in the United States, she developed a relationship with Gertrude Townsend, the textiles curator of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Through a series of loans and special exhibitions, Gertude and Elizabeth worked together to bring this impressive collection into the public eye. Elizabeth eventually donated her entire collection to the museum, pleased that she was handing her life’s work into appreciative and caring hands.
These are only three of a vast and inumerale world of women like us and you who love embroidery and textiles and continue to appreciate and practice this ancient art. We make our voices heard through our work.