Saturday, July 3, 2010

Mary Eirwen Jones's Embroidery Book

Periodically, when the opportunity presents itself, I purchase inexpensively priced, used books on costume-related subjects about which I know little or nothing.  My latest acquisition of this type is the following book:
Jones, Mary Eirwen.  A History of Western Embroidery. Littlehampton Book Services Ltd. (August 1969).  ISBN-10: 0289796555.
Often, such early survey-type histories are frustrating in that they contain much less useful information than the title or length implies.  A History of Western Embroidery is such a survey.   I would like to describe its limitations in the event any of my readers may be considering adding it to their libraries.

Ms. Jones purports to address the subject of embroidery in Europe  (and, briefly, America), from earliest times up to the period that was the "present" at the time her book was written.  With the exception of several introductory chapters about embroidery generally and about "Embroidery in Antiquity", and a final chapter about modern embroidery, the book is organized by region, with each chapter  being a miniature history of embroidery in that region.   England, France, Italy, Germany, Flanders, Switzerland and the Iberian peninsula are singled out for full-chapter treatment.

Unfortunately, (perhaps because her bibliography shows that she relied upon a limited number of secondary sources to inform her examination of  primary examples), Ms. Jones's history is annoyingly vague and general.  The following passage about embroidery in the time of Charlemagne illustrates both Ms. Jones's writing style and her unfortunate lack of specificity:
Charlemagne (768-814) did much by his strong and enlightened rule to extend civilization and develop the arts among his people.  Commerce and manufactures flourished in his reign and he fostered industries in Flanders, Brabant and other regions and maintained a high standard of culture at his court.  It is recorded that his mother, Bertha (nicknamed 'of the Big Feet') taught the art of embroidery to Charlemagne's daughters while the emperor's aunt, St. Giselle, fostered skill in needlework in the many convents which she established in Aquitaine and Provence.

Valuable information concerning the life of Charlemagne and the manners and customs of his times have been bequeathed to us in the writings of a monk, Eginhard, who lived at St. Gall in the time of the great emperor.  In the Vita Karolis Imperatoris one may learn of Charlemagne's state dress comprising 'a close fitting vest or jacket of gold embroidery, sandals or slippers set with precious stones; also a cloak or mantle fastened by a golden brooch or fibula aand a crown of gold, glistening with gems.'

That is all Ms. Jones has to say about embroidery in France at the court of Charlemagne, and precious little it is.  In her chapter on German embroidery she mentions in passing that a cope presented by Charlemagne survives at Metz Cathedral, but her description of it is  vague:  "Embroidered on it are great eagles with outstretched wings, their claws being bitten by legendary creatures.  Threads of yellow, blue and green are used for the representation."

Even sadder, the number of pictures is few (because of cost?  because of inability to obtain permission to use photographs? It's impossible to tell.  However, there is a substantial list of museums containing suitable specimens at the back of the book).

My greatest frustration with the text, unsurprisingly, is with the lack of material about early period embroidery work.  Although Ms. Jones takes pains to emphasize that the art of embroidery dates back to antiquity, she provides little information from which to form a idea of what the earliest embroideries must have been like.  For example, she describes an extant artifact from ancient Egypt, the funeral tent of Queen Isi-em-Kebs, apparently dated to the 10th century B.C.E., only as being "worked on a ground made of hundreds of pieces of gazelle hide adorned with twisted pink leather cord."  This artifact, which by its very antiquity and survival is more remarkable than the modern pieces that take up three full pages of the photograph section, does not even rate a small photograph.

Although I have not yet read very far in the text, the illustrations suggest that Ms. Jones is primarily interested in later works.  Most of the photographs she has selected are of embroideries that date from the 16th century or later, and with the exception of a too-small, black-and-white photograph of St. Cuthbert's stole (a 10th century Anglo-Saxon work), there are no photographs of embroideries from before the high Middle Ages. 

Overall, there are interesting nuggets of information about historic embroideries in Ms. Jones's work, but it requires frustrating amounts of effort to tease them out.  I have found much more information more conveniently organized on the Internet--and that is something that cannot truthfully be said for many costume-related topics.  In particular, I recommend the Historical Needlework Resources website for well organized information, with pictures, about embroidery in Europe and the Middle East from the 7th through 16th centuries.  This source is also limited, but for the scope of information it contains it is, in my opinion, more useful than Ms. Jones's book.  If I had not obtained this book for a low price ($8.29 USD, plus about $4 shipping), I would be disappointed indeed.


  1. And I suppose that the book also assumes that nothing east of Germany was part of "Europe."

  2. No, it's not quite that bad. There is a chapter on "Eastern Europe". I haven't gotten that far in the book yet, but a quick scan suggests that it covers mostly 19th-20th century folk embroidery. There's no breakdown by nation, except that "Rumanian embroidery" gets its own subsection, Heaven alone knows why.