‘This book is the Jane Austen of the Embroidery world in my opinion.  The writing is a little dated and flowery, but none-the-less sharply insightful, well researched and logically portrayed.  It’s gently scattered with delightfully useful and informative line drawings along with black-and-white plates.’  Cathy Jack Coupland

‘Needlework As Art’, written by Lady M Alford, first published in London in 1886 by Sampson Low, London.  The copy I’m reading is a reprint from 1975, published by EP Publishing Limited, Yorkshire.

I’m a bit of a bibliomaniac, and when I first came across ‘Needlework as Art’ about six years ago in The Embroiderers Guild NSW Library, I didn’t realise quite how old it was.  I thought the dedication to the Queen in the front of the book referred to Queen Elizabeth II.  Wrong, it was for Queen Victoria, which of course became apparent when I checked the first published date.

It’s a large work covering the history, usage, and art of embroidery, including global, cultural, and religious information and influences.  The perfect book to curl up with on a cold, damply drizzly day.  It’s a must to wear thick, warm, comfy socks while drinking a cup of warming tea and eating a slice of heavenly home-made lemon-thyme cake.

So why on earth do I find this book astonishing?  It’s just another book about Needlework, isn’t it?  Let me explain:

  • The title says it all really – Needlework as Art, is not a term I would have associated with that era, remember this was the late 1800’s.  It’s a relatively new term, I would have thought.  Surprisingly not, and the title sets the tone for the entire book.
  • The contents include Style, Design, Patterns, Materials, Colour, Stitches, Hangings, Furniture, Dress, Ecclesiastical Embroidery, and English Embroidery.  That’s truly a world of Embroidery.
  • Lady Marion champions, throughout the book, Embroidery as art and not merely a craft, and supports that rationale.
  • Lady Marion actually uses the term ‘Textile Art’ throughout the book.  I have to question if this is the first reference to this term?  It’s so widely used now, it’s commonplace, but surely it must have been unique in 1886?
  • Historical references capturing my time and imagination to this extent is mind-blowing.  She tells an entertaining story.
  • Lady Marion’s use of language, imagery, and metaphors is simply delightful.  It makes me think about how I could utilise these in my own writing.

Time poor? This book is probably not for you.  However, if you do have time, allow yourself the embroidery-related gratification and pleasure this book offers.

‘Needlework as Art’ comes with my recommendation, plus it’s available to read as a free e-book, kindly offered by The Gutenberg Project.  I hope you find it as enjoyable as I did and still do.  It’s worth going back to – often.

Marianne Margaret Egerton, Viscountess Alford, generally known as Lady Marian Alford, (1817–1888), was an English artist, art patron, and author. She was known for her work with the Royal School of Art Needlework, and for writing a history of needlework.

After this, I can’t help writing about book-shops.  Look for it next week.

cathy jack coupland