The Diligent Needle: Instrument of Profit, Pleasure, and Ornament

needlework picture of birds and tree

needleworkFor centuries, instruction in needlework was an important part of women’s education. Both plain sewing and fancy embroidery are skills that take considerable time and effort to acquire, and as a result, many women took great pride in their work. Women might use their skill to earn a living through teaching or sewing, to create objects of beauty for themselves and for others, or to embellish clothing and household furnishings.


This exhibition showcases the evolution of needlework and the prominent role it played in women’s lives during the 17th through 19th centuries. It opens with the diligence and skill required to learn and excel at needlework and delves into the various applications of the skill with sections on diligence, profit, pleasure, and ornament, featuring stunning visual examples:

Samplers diligently worked on in day and boarding schools are the best documented examples of a girl’s education, but needlework skills were also learned at home, where women of all ages too part in the needlework activities of the household.

Women could use their skill with a needle to generate extra income or support themselves and their families. Some women, known as mantua makers, milliners or tailoresses, created fine dresses and other clothing, others taught embroidery or offered their skill in decorating clothing and furnishings, while others used the skill for plain sewing, mending and hemming.

Not everyone loved embroidery, but those who did would continue to develop their skill and artistry throughout their life.

Those skillful with a needle often used their talent to embellish their own clothing, accessories, and textile furnishings.


Read the wonderful review of Linda Eaton's book Printed Textiles: British and American Cottons and Linens, 1700–1850 in The Magazine ANTIQUES.


**Image at top: Needlework picture, 1750–1800. Gift of Henry Francis du Pont 1961.1697

d in addition to issues of authenticity, forgery, and revivals.

Most objects in the exhibition are drawn from Winterthur’s permanent collection, which now includes the fraktur and textile collection of the late Pastor Frederick S. Weiser, a legendary scholar and collector of Pennsylvania German folk art. More than a dozen private collectors and institutions also loaned important works of art.

An illustrated, 64-page catalogue will accompany the exhibition, presenting new scholarship and many never-before-published objects. Click here for a sample of the booklet. To purchase the booklet, visit the online book store.

Major support for A Colorful Folk is provided by John and Marjorie McGraw, with additional support from the American Folk Art Society and Dolores and Stephen Smith.

Related exhibitions were on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from February 1–April 26, 2015 and the Free Library of Philadelphia from March 2–July 16, 2015. 


*Image at top: Religious text, signed by Andreas Kolb, probably Montgomery County, PA, ca. 1785. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Henry Francis du Pont Collectors Circle 2013.31.71

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