On the sign in Sterling Memorial Library marking the entrance to “Nature’s Own Shape,” a study of embroidery in early modern England, there reads a line of Shakespeare’s: “With her needle composes nature’s own shape. Of bud, bird, branch or berry that even her art sisters the natural roses.” Although the exhibit indeed features several pieces of artfully crafted embroidery depicting various elements of natural life, the true focus of the study lies in the nature of humankind. The exhibit is the senior project of Bea Koch ’12, a Branfordian undertaking the Special Divisional Major of Renaissance studies. In a pamphlet of exhibition highlights, Koch introduces the exhibition as one that “seeks to remind the viewer of the fun and whimsy that is characteristic of Elizabethan embroidery.” True to her word, Koch has crafted a project that subtly points out the lighter side of Elizabethan life.
The exhibit begins with a series of works grouped under the heading “The Needle’s Praise.” The description notes that although embroidery is generally thought of as a pastime for women, the majority of professional embroiderers in early modern England were men. The difficulty of reconciling these intricately crafted floral works with the image of 16th century blacksmiths and fletchers only adds to the show’s many surprises. Yet the fact that the only embroiderers pictured are women suggests that the more stringent gender conventions of the past may have compelled many men to practise their craft in secret.
In addition to portraits of embroiderers, “The Needle’s Praise” features an embroidered mouse à la Beatrix Potter. The earnest look on the mouse’s face — when juxtaposed with the elaborate floral patterns and stern, prim women depicted in the surrounding pieces — gets at the “whimsy” that Koch alludes to in her introduction.
The project moves through various styles of embroidery, many of them centered around nature. Koch links natural symbols with deeper political and social observations. In the section titled “The Spanyshe-stitch,” Koch writes about the symbols of fertility — roses, pomegranates and corn — that were made popular in blackwork (a type of counted-stitch embroidery) during the reign of Catherine of Aragon.
Koch does a good job of introducing visitors to the subtleties found within 15th- to 18th-century embroidery. Koch’s placement of the symbols within a social and historical context allows the casual viewer to glean a fuller picture of the values, concerns and ideals that dominated life in Elizabethan times.
The major shortfall of the exhibit is its lack of actually embroidered pieces. One of the few works on display is an embroidered book cover, circa 1700, taken from the curator’s personal collection. The majority of the other works showcased are either books about embroidery or illustrations. Without the physicality of genuine embroidery, it is difficult for the visitor to experience the tangibility of the handcrafted artworks described. You get the sense that you’re viewing a display of painting or sketches rather than stepping inside the tactile realm of sewing and needlework.
Koch’s acute insights into Elizabethan lifestyle and art, however, make up for this deficiency. Her passionate yet careful descriptions may even be what compel the visitor to want more from the exhibit. The displays give visitors a taste of an old, exquisite art that stands as a testament to the exquisite complexities of an old world.