Berlin Work by Pat Berman
Originally published in Needle Pointers, Feb/Mar 1990 and revised in October 2000
Editor's Note: Pat Berman is a teacher of canvas embroidery with an emphasis on the creative use of decorative stitches. She has taught at the chapter level in the Southern California area for both the ANG and EGA, for shops and for non-affiliated groups. Since the original publication of this article, Pat has become a Senior Master Teacher in ANG’s Master Teacher Program.
No facet of history evolves in a vacuum. Social development is an integral part of the mechanical, philosophical and artistic changes that take place in every era. Berlin Work is no exception to this and must be examined carefully to understand how it became so important in the Victorian world.
England had grown from a rural, agricultural society to an industrialized civilization that would revolutionize the world. Economics were no longer based solely on agriculture. As larger towns came into being, local communities and the closeness they fostered diminished. Larger towns meant even more physical proximity that fostered tenements while forcing individuals apart socially. The upper classes viewed the lower classes more and more by their ability to contribute to work production rather than as individuals.
With the invention of steam power, industrial entrepreneurs had more geographical freedom when selecting factory locations. They no longer had to be as close to sources of energy like water, wood or coal. Factories were located where there were large groups of employable people and nearby open areas in which to build cheap housing. With an increase in industrial production, coal dust and other pollutants began to fill the air of urban England. It was said that there were parts of London where it was dark even in daytime because of the soot and factory pollution.
While these entrepreneurs were lining their pockets, not all of the by-products of industrialization were beneficial. Living in crowded towns and cities affected both longevity and the quality of life, shortening the average life expectancy for everyone. However, the pull towards the cities was strong because people needed to earn a living. Sadly, it wasn’t until the damage was irreversible that the price of industrialization began to be realized. Even then, there were those who would not or could not give up their way of life.
Manufacturing and development of commerce – “progress” – was the most important factor for improving life in England, paid for by the poor health and low morale of factory workers and very high infant mortality among the lower classes. The country prospered, but at a fearful cost to the working classes who were crowded into tenements and workhouses, or worse. While transportation was available, it, like the housing, became more crowded and uncomfortable despite relatively inexpensive fares. Of course, there were always one’s feet if one couldn’t afford shoes…
The newly-rich middle class tried to imitate their betters by establishing homes that were as lavishly furnished as they could afford and taking homes in the country as well, to get away from the deplorable urban conditions. When the well-to-do family closed their front door, they felt safe from the wretched life in the streets, from which many of them had escaped as recently as a generation before.
It should be noted that we would not consider conditions in these homes to be at all comfortable, as witnessed by the recent PBS/BBC production of “The 1900 House.” Although this program detailed life in London some 50 years later than we are discussing, the same problems persisted: excessive coal dust, lack of good light or hot running water, poorly balanced diets, tooth decay, and a variety of household pests including rats and cockroaches. Bathroom facilities, usually located outside of the main house, were still far from what we consider civilized and electricity only came into homes after 1882 (if they could afford it!) Cleaning solvents were highly toxic, as were many medicines and gardening additives, not to mention the fact that the little household vegetable patch was subjected to the constant air pollution.
Although the respectable Victorian family had some opportunities for entertainment in the evening outside of the home, such as concerts, lectures, balls, supper parties and the theater, women of the time had to rely on “such home-y diversions as playing the piano or learning embroidery” to “help bring a dash of color into their . . . lives.” (Markrich and Kiewe 15). The luxury of having servants freed up a Victorian lady’s time, so embroidery provided an opportunity to be productive and artistic, served as a way of instructing young women in the domestic arts, and was also a lovely way to spend time with one’s friends (some things don’t change…)
Victorian décor called for large pieces of furniture and multitudes of dust-catching bric-a-brac. Embroidery was used to brighten up the home, and in typical Victorian style, it appeared in a profusion of uses and colors. “Berlin wool” with its exciting colors was regarded as the perfect medium to accomplish the task of enhancing the already over-decorated domestic environment, almost as if to serve as a balance to the grim world outside the home.
History of Berlin Wool Work
According to Pamela Clabburn in The Needleworker’s Dictionary (Clabburn 29), Berlin Wood Work evolved from the Tent Stitch embroideries of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. In S.F.A. Caulfeild’s 1887 Cyclopedia of Victorian Needlework (reprinted in 1972,) Berlin work was described as a “modern version of Opus Pulvinarium of the Ancients.” (Caulfeild 27) Opus pulvinarium or “work for the pulvinar” was the name given to embroidery worked on open canvas materials with silks and wool worsted (firmly twisted yarn or thread spun from combed, stapled fibers of the same length,) using the Cross and Tent Stitches. A “pulvinar” was a couch made of cushions, spread with rich fabric coverings that was placed in temples in front of the altars and statues of gods. Later, because the finished pieces of embroidery were used as cushions and kneelers in churches, the work was called “Cushion Style.”
Opus pulvinarium was known the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, as well as various people in Asian Minor and the ancient Middle East, all of whom appear to have used Cross Stitch extensively. Cross Stitch can be found on this type of work as late as the 16th century in Europe. One of the most remarkable examples of Opus pulvinarium is the Syon cope (c. 1320) which demonstrates Cross Stitch, as well as Underside Couching, Split Stitch, as well as Laid and Couched work.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Tent Stitch replaced the Cross Stitch as the most frequently used stitching technique. The name Canvas Work was now being applied to the items, and continued in popular usage until the end of the 19th century.
Prior to the introduction of Berlin Wool Work designs, which would be available to both wealthy and middle class women, needlework designs had been created by important artists of the day. Wealthy women had access to the finest, most expensive materials. Louis XIV had a personal embroiderer and “often . . . designed to wield the needle with his own august hands.” (Karr 43). At the same time, in England, one of the liveried Companies of London was the great Guild of Embroiderers.
With the advent of more accessible charts and less costly designs, more people could do the kind of embroidery that had been reserved for the upper class. Karr editorializes about her dislike for “vulgar Stump Work,” derived from a type of needlework done during the Elizabethan and Stuart eras in England. According to Karr, this newer version of Stump Work involved the use of patterns stamped on silk, parts of which would be worked and parts of which were left exposed; the use of poorly done designs on cheap canvas; and popular prints of the day that were pasted on felt or some other cheap background.
Prior to these more commercially-produced charts, patterns were merely outlines, with colors, shading, and stitches chosen by the embroiderer. Colored charts and patterns that dictated exactly how the work was to be done meant that the embroiderer could reproduce the type of work formerly reserved for the wealthy without requiring artistic input.
Berlin Wool Work, as we know it today, was developed in Germany in the 19th century for the amateur stitcher, based on hand-painted charts of Cross Stitch patterns that were worked with a very soft wool that was spun in the city of Saxe-Gotha, located in the central German region of Thuringia. The wool was taken to Berlin where it was dyed and packaged with the charts which were also printed and painted there. The first charts were released in 1804, and within the next forty years, at least 14,000 different designs were produced. When the brightly-colored wools became commercially available in 1820, it was accorded the name Berlin Work; these wools actually began to replace crewel, lambswool and silk threads that had been popular materials. The wool was dye in brilliant colors reflecting popular German taste. In addition to the standard Cross and Tent Stitches, a new stitch called the Surrey Stitch, created a thick dimensional pile that added to the richness and reality of floral designs. As if this were not enough, some designs even called for the inclusion of colored glass beads as accent.
In 1810, a Madame Wittich of Berlin decided that better charts were needed, and she tried to interest local artists in this endeavor. The result was not only improved charts, but a return to better materials like silk and a higher grade of canvas. Herr Wittich saw the commercial value of charts that were copies of classic or popular paintings with the colors actually painted on the canvas in the squares. Artists were hired to transfer great works of art onto canvas, and encouraged to create their own floral and geometric designs. Some of these original designs were created on “point” paper and were very expensive. (“Point” paper is graph paper using 1 square = 1 inch scale.)
One of the special characteristics of Berlin Work patterns was the use of “point” paper that showed colored blocks on the paper that corresponded to the squares on the canvas. Before this, colors had been indicated by codes and patterns were printed using copper plates; the printed pattern then had to be graphed and painted by hand, which added to the cost. Now the embroiderer could follow a colored graph by counting lines, squares, and stitches on a blank canvas. A new canvas was created that had parallel threads crossing at larger intervals, and that innovation was followed by the inclusion of a blue line placed vertically at intervals of 5 or 10 threads to help the stitcher count.
Another important characteristic of Berlin Work was the type and quality of wool used. Until this time, old English and Netherlands wools, called zephers, were used in tapestries and worsted embroideries. The quality of this new wool fiber was much better and the way it accepted dye produced a much more satisfying product. The wool was softer than crewel thread, which was wiry and twisty, and strands of woven crewel thread were very difficult to separate. Because the new wool product took dye so well, more brilliant colors could be produced. In addition, the weight of the Berlin wool was designed to fit the canvas. Berlin wool was manufactured for knitting as well as embroidery. Some German wool was brought to England in its raw state, then combed, spun and dyed in Scotland. To quote Caulfeild, “that dyed here is less perfect and durable than that imported ready for use, except those dyed in black which are cleaner in working.” (Caulfeild 27). Eventually, Berlin wool was produced in Yorkshire by blending German and English wool. However, it is interesting to note that although the traditionally dynamic colors were popular with German embroiderers, English needlewomen appear to have preferred softer and more subtle colors.
Prior to 1830, Berlin Work patterns were not well known outside of Germany. German stitchers worked the patterns and some even earned small sums of money by selling their finished products. In 1831, a Mr. Wilks of Regent Street in London purchased as many good designs as he could find, as well as the patterns and working materials from Berlin and Paris. By the middle of the 19th century, Berlin Work patterns had become the favorite designs of embroiderers in both England and the United States.
In 1870, the rise of the Art and Crafts Movement in England, led by the brilliant designer William Morris and later picked up in New England, spelled the decline in popularity of Berlin Work. Morris was a poet, a political activist, and an artist whose impact is best seen in stained glass, textiles, and home decorations produced by his firm, Morris & Co., which was founded in 1861. The other important group that affected all forms of art at this time were the Pre-Raphaelites, led by Dante Gabriel Rosetti and his sister Christina, and numbered among its adherents Lewis Carroll, Swinburne, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. The rigidly stylized and sentimental designs of Berlin Work were ill suited to the flowing, “natural” dramatic themes prevalent in the works of these two movements. The romantic notions we have today of King Arthur and Camelot come mostly from the almost fanatical fascination with the uniquely British hero.
An ardent Socialist, Morris deplored what he saw as the dominion Commerce
held over life “so now on the contrary it will be admitted by all, I
fancy, that Commerce has become of very great importance and Art of very
little.” His goal was to return Art to its proper place:
The close of the 19th century saw great changes occurring on all levels of society, and needlework was not unaffected. The Royal School of Needlework was founded in 1872 by Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, Queen Victoria's third daughter to restore ornamental needlework to the high place it once held amongst decorative arts and to create an “acceptable” form of employment for "gentlewomen" who, in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, found themselves in great financial need. Where needlework had always been seen as a pursuit reserved for the wealthy, and imitated by the middle class, now it was being presented as a viable means of earning a living, a revolutionary concept that a woman could earn a living in a non-servitude (or worse) mode of employment. The hand of the Arts and Crafts Movement could be seen here, as William Morris himself was a member of the board. The aim of the RSN, in addition to providing gainful employment, was to restore the principles of good simple designs done with quality materials and workmanship.
Throughout its active history, Berlin Work was frequently subjected to ridicule, most often for its use of florid colors and trite designs. Caulfeild notes that if the embroiderer would seek good designs rather than “false” ones, there was no reason why “Berlin Work should not take its ancient position among needlework.” (Caulfeild 28). The founding of the RSN and other embroidery schools fueled the fire of those who sought the demise of Berlin Work. In 1888, the Magazine of Art welcomed the new movement and eagerly awaited direction from the RSN. It was stated that Berlin Wool Work had “left in its wake [a] vestige in the shapes of mats and cushions worked in strong magentas and violent spinach greens.”
Styles of Berlin Wool Work
The most popular Berlin Work designs were wreathes or bouquets of flowers,
birds, ribbons, landscapes and lush pictorials. In the 1830s and 1840s,
the design was most often stitched on a light ground, but by the 1850s the
use of black or a very dark color was more popular. Some of these floral
designs became quite elaborate, depicting flowers spilling out of
cornucopias or displayed in elaborate arrangements. The pictorials,
popular from the mid-19th century, stressed exaggerated emotion
reminiscent of large oil paintings of the day that relied on classical
subjects for inspiration. Animals were also a popular theme, especially
pet dogs and birds. Another common theme was domestic situations, such as
homey kettles burning on a hearth or a still life arrangement of
foodstuffs and dead game animals.
Several types of embroidery that adapted Berlin Work included samplers,
using a variety of threads including chenille, as well as beads and
ribbons on a single-weave linen ground. Commonly used stitches included
Cross Stitch, Tent Stitch and a variety of Bargello Stitches.
Imitating fabric was also popular. Needlewomen seemed to enjoy the
challenge of working complicated plaids from charts or women damask
brocades with diaper patterns.
Another style of needlework that became popular around 1840 was “canvas lace work,” in which the embroiderer imitated black lace by doing the open net groundwork of the lace pattern in black silk with the heavier parts of the pattern stitched in a thicker silk or the 4-ply Berlin Wool. The Hand Book of Needlework (1842) acknowledges this style but with some reserve:
Around 1850, a variation of Berlin Work appeared, called Berlin Embroidery. This style included the use of beads, and included silk and chenille threads along with the wool. There are even examples of designs that were worked solely in beads.
By the late 1860s, the usual Berlin Work floral designs began to be replaced by ornamental and geometric designs, no doubt in response to the growing Art and Crafts Movement. Gigantic blossoms and very bright parrots were replaced by calm and subtle Greek key borders, folded ribbons, tile-like diaper patterns, controlled ornamental scrolls and arabesques, and formalized acanthus leaves and vines. Neo-Classical design elements relied on simplicity and repetition to achieve the less florid look.
A new field – Art Needlework – became popular and groups or “societies” of embroiderers were formed to encourage needlework as an art. Caulfeild loftily defines Art Needlework as
The popularity of new forms of needlework from continental Europe added to the demise of Berlin Work in the 1880s. “Broderie Russ” was done on even-weave fabric rather than on canvas, using Russian peasant designs as its source. These patterns were printed directly on the linen, so the stitcher no longer needed to worry about counting threads and stitches.
Another innovation was French canvas embroidery done on single-thread or “mono” canvas. This canvas was usually white, cream or ecru and designs were done in white knitting cotton, with some ecru and crimson (possibly influenced by “Broderie Russ”) were used as occasional accents. The designs were almost exclusively geometric.
Berlin Work in America
Candace Thurber Wheeler grew up along the Delaware River. Raised in a family of eight children, she was a well-educated woman who wrote eloquently about her upbringing: “The training of the eight children who composed the family flock was based directly upon the precepts of Solomon, not in the least mitigated by centuries of divergent thought. We were not only traditional, but actual Puritans, repeating in 1828 the lives of our pioneer New England fore-fathers a hundred years before.”
Fortunately, the stern environment in which she was raised could not squelch her artistic nature. “Being an imaginative and intrepid child, who could bear the consequences of sin for the pleasure of sinning, I suffered conscientious whippings for a tendency to change plain facts into fairy-tale happenings and otherwise varying the monotony of our sternly prescribed lives.”
In 1877, she founded the Society of Decorative Art in New York City in 1877 and was a founder of the Women's Exchange, a self-help organization established to aid women. In 1879 Mrs. Wheeler entered in partnership with Louis C. Tiffany, Samuel Colman and Lockwood de Forest to create a design firm called "Associated Artists," which produced interior decorations, pattern designs and needlework for clients who included Samuel Clemens and the White House. Although the partnership ended in 1883, Mrs. Wheeler continued Associated Artists as an all-women design firm in New York that produced needlework and printed textiles until 1907. In 1893 Mrs. Wheeler and her company supervised the decoration of the Woman's Building at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Candace Thurber Wheeler's printed textile designs have a strong and self-assured quality and show the marked influence of both William Morris and of Japanese art which was fashionable at the turn of the century.
According to a review of Mary Warner Blanchard’s book Oscar Wilde’s America: Counterculture in the Gilded Age:
Berlin Work in America encompassed all kinds of techniques. Canvas was basted onto a cloth foundation and the design was stitched with crewel wool through both fabrics. When the pattern was completed, the canvas threads were drawn out and the stitched work was left, very much like we use waste canvas today. American stitchers felt free to adapt patterns and materials to suit their individual tastes. A range of stitches called “Fancy Berlin Stitches,” included: Cross Stitch, Cushion Stitch, Satin Stitch, Tapestry Stitch and Tent Stitch. Around 1887, when Caulfeild’s Encyclopedia of Victorian Needlework was published, an extended list of these stitches included Back Stitch, Damask Stitch, German Stitch, Herringbone Stitch, Irish Stitch, Plus Stitch, Leviathan Stitch (single, double and treble), Raised Stitch, Rep Stitch and many variations on all of them. The wealth of stitches added a richness and texture to the work.
Caulfeild also catalogued the kinds of materials to be used in Berlin Work. The size of the canvas was determined by the strand of wool (single or double), the space to be covered, and whether or not the stitch that went over one or two threads. The patterns also indicated the number of stitches, so there was no problem fitting the stitch into the pattern. Canvases were tightly stretched, as they are today, with the selvedges on the right and left-hand sides of the frames.
The stitcher was instructed to start a design in the center so that if any errors were encountered when counting out the pattern, the entire design would not have to be reworked. When doing a figure or a landscape, the experienced stitcher was advised to start at the bottom of the chart and work upwards. This meant the designs were worked last and kept cleaner. The background was to be worked as carefully as the rest of the design. If the background appeared uneven or pulled, it would, according to Caulfeild, “negate the good and careful work of the rest of the piece.” The background was started at the bottom on the left-hand side and worked across the piece in rows. Threads were to be kept short with the ends run in along the back. Knots were expressly forbidden.
The Ladies Indispensable Assistant, written by E. Hutchinson and published in 1852 offers the following stern instructions regarding how to dress a frame for Cross Stitch:
canvass must be hemmed neatly around: then count your threads and place
the centre one exactly in the middle of the frame. The canvass much be
drawn as tight as the screws or pegs will permit, and if too long, is
should be wrapped around the poles wit tissue paper, to keep it from dust,
and the friction of the arms, as that is essential to the beauty of the
work. It must in all cases be rolled under, or it will occasion much
trouble in the working. When laced quite even in the frame, secure, by
fine twine passes over the stretchers and thought the canvass, very
closely; both sides must be tightened gradually or it will draw to one
side, and the work will be spoiled."
A variety of canvases were available. Berlin canvas was a fine silk canvas on which the background was actually left unstitched. The canvas count ranged from 21:1 to 40:1 and suited the Berlin Wool which was a loose, untwisted wool. Canvas colors included black, white, “pearl” white, claret and primrose, which complemented the Berlin Wool palette. White was considered most appropriate for small designs. German cotton canvas was the least expensive. Every 10th thread on that canvas was yellow, which helped the stitcher count the threads. The mesh was actually a bit oblong rather than square, which causes some distortion in the pattern. French canvas was constructed of square even mesh which embroiderers found very easy and satisfying to work.
The old standby, Penelope, was distinguished by having threads in sets of four. The largest canvas size was “#8” which was counted at 11:1. Sizes progressed, much as today, up to #24 (27:1) and #30 (31:1). Most canvas was sold blank and the stitcher had to copy the design from the printed pattern. Canvases with the designs printed on them in the appropriate colors could also be purchased.
The Legacy of Berlin Work
Although the kinds of needlework we see today, especially at judged shows and in classes, have come a long way from the sentimental floral designs and excessively bright colors of Berlin Wool Work, it is important to remember that needlework has an ancient lineage. When you pick up a piece of canvas and place your first stitch, you are continuing the tradition of which Berlin Wool Work is an important part. You are also carrying the torch that was given new light in the late 19th century when courageous women in Europe and America raised needlework from a domestic pastime to the level of a true art.
Bath, Virginia Churchill. Needlework in America. London: Mills and Boon, Ltd., 1979.
Caulfeild, S.F.A. Encyclopedia of Victorian Needlework, a replication of the 2nd Edition. London: A.W. Cowan, 1882 as The Dictionary of Needlework: An Encyclopedia of Artistic, Plain and Fancy Needlework.
Caulfeild, S.F. A. Encyclopedia of Victorian Needlework, Volume II, a replication of the 2nd Edition. London: A.W. Cowan, 1882 as The Dictionary of Needlework: An Encyclopedia of Artistic, Plain and Fancy Needlework.
Clabburn, Pamela. The Needleworker’s Dictionary. New York: Wm. Morrow & Co., Inc., 1976.
Mary. A World of Embroidery. New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1969.
Gostelow, Mary. The Complete International Book of Embroidery. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.
Hanley, Hope. Needlepoint in America. New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1969.
Hanley, Hope. Needlepoint. New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1964.
Harbeson, Georgina Brown. American Needlework. New York: Bonanza Books, 1938.
Karr, Louise. “Berlin Wool Work.” Needlework: An Historical Survey. Ed. Betty Ring. New York: Antiques Magazine Library, Main Street/Universe Books, 1975. (Originally printed in Antiques Magazine, July 1927).
Levey, Santina M. Discovering Embroidery of the 19th Century. England: Shire Publications, Ltd., 1977.
Markrich, Lilo and Heinz Edgar Kiewe. Victorian Fancywork – 19th Century Needlepoint Patterns and Designs. Chicago: Regnery Company, 1974.
Meulenbelt-Nieuwburg, Albarta. Embroidery Motifs from Old Dutch Samplers. New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1974.
Morris, Barbara. Victorian Embroidery. London: Herbert Jenkins, 1962.
Orr, Anne. Full Color Charted Designs. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1984.
Proctor, Molly G. Victorian Canvas Work; Berlin Wool Work. London: B.T. Batsford, Ltd., 1986.
Margaret H. Historical Needlework – A Study of Influences in Scotland
and Northern England. New York: Scribners’ Sons, 1970.
Morris, William. “Art and Socialism.” Delivered as a lecture to the Leicester Secular Society on January 23, 1884. First published as a pamphlet at Leek in 1884, it was reprinted in The Collected Works of William Morris, XXIII, 192-214, Cole, 624-45, Jackson, 96-I 14 and Political Writings of William Morris, ed. A. L. Morten, 109-133. “Art and Socialism” was transcribed from the Political Writings of William Morris by Chris Croome for the William Morris Internet Archive, a subarchive of the Marxist Writers' Archives, in November 1997. <http://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/1884/as/as.htm.>
“Candace Wheeler – II: In the Beginning” was transcribed by Christopher Todd as an online posting in 1998 on http://www.todds.org/candace_wheeler.htm.
Burns, Sarah (Indiana University). Oscar Wilde’s America: Counterculture in the Gilded Age by Mary Warner Blanchard. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. Review posted on CAA.Reviews, http://www.caareviews.org/reviews/blanchard.html © College Art Association 2000.
Hutchinson, E. Ladies Indispensable Assistant. Copyrighted in 1852. <http://www.costumegallery.com/Book_1852/work_box.htm> © The Costume Gallery, 1997-1999.
Figure 1: Modern Berlin Work pattern, inspired by a private collection of original Victorian Berlin Work charts. Available from Petit Point, Harrogate, England.
Figure 2: Modern Berlin Work pattern, inspired by a private collection of original Victorian Berlin Work charts. Available from Petit Point, Harrogate, England.
Figure 3: An authentic 5 x 5 inch colorful 19th century wool design embroidered on white canvas with nine alternating red or blue circles outlined in black, divided by brown and tan crosses on a white background. Each circle has a contrasting mouse in center. Available from Reflections of the Past: Antiques Marketplace, Lexington, KY.
Figure 4: Original textile design by Candace Thurber Wheeler, c. 1885-1900, entitled “Seashell & Ribbon on Linen Union.” From the collection at the Mark Twain Memorial in Hartford, CT. Available from J.R. Burrows & Company, Rockland, MA.