Spring 2024: Google ended its email subscription service in 2021. I believe I've found a replacement, but haven't had time to test it. I have been stitching a little bit here and there and have some posts ready for when the email subscription is active again. Fingers crossed, I'll have time to rouse this blog out of its dormancy sometime this year.

03 November 2017

Visiting the Embroidered Past

I am fascinated by Society Silk embroidery. Society Silk is the modern name for a style of embroidery that was popular at the end of the 19th century and lasted through the beginning of the 20th. It was known as Art Needlework in its day.

Society Silk designs typically consist of florals which can be incredibly realistic or very simplistic. There are other designs, but from what I've seen florals dominate. The finished pieces overall tend to be table linens.

Examples of three Society Silk centrepieces
Vintage Society Silk centrepieces

The materials used include incredibly fine linen--much finer than is available today--and gorgeous washable(!) shiny filament silks. There are variations on these materials, but from what I've seen these are the most common and are definitely my favourites.

Society Silk was primarily an American phenomenon. Most of the pieces I've seen for sale and as designs in old needlework publications appear to originate in the US. I would be curious to know if Society Silk or equivalent was popular in other parts of the world at the time.

Authentic Society Silk Unstitched Stamped Linens

I have managed to acquire a few unstitched stamped linens from the Society Silk era, along with some vintage silk embroidery threads. I've wanted to stitch an authentic piece using the original silks for a very long time.

I have quite a bit of purple antique silk embroidery thread, so was happy when I was able to acquire two small stamped centrepieces/doilies with violets. Perfect!

Society Silk Violets: Original stamped linen with designAlthough the designs are the same, they appear to have come from different sources as the text around the edges is different. I think they might have been some sort of giveaways. Each corner has different information. One corner has stitching instructions and the other three contain various ads including one for a sofa and another for a desk. There are even photos of the desk and sofa!

Unfortunately, both stamped pieces have age-related staining. I have washed both of them with extreme care. It's interesting that although they originally looked similar as far as whatever ink was used for stamping, the one with less staining lost more stamping ink than the other. In fact, I stopped the washing process on the 'good' one because I was concerned that I was going to lose the design lines. The lines are faded, but still visible. I'm hoping that I can possibly remove a little more of the staining when I'm done stitching and don't have to worry about losing the lines.

The 'less good' stamped piece didn't appear to lose any of its ink. Strange.

I'm not happy about the staining, but I can live with it. It's not uncommon for extant pieces of Society Silk embroidery to have stains so I'm in good company. Perhaps it lends more authenticity to the piece.

Stopped at the Border

In order to stitch this vintage embroidery, I need the appropriate threads. As mentioned previously, I have antique purples (and greens) for the violets. What has been holding me back is the border. Borders are typically stitched in white and require a lot of thread. I don't have very much antique white thread and I think it's unrealistic to think that I will find a large cache of it any time soon!

I've been searching off and on for an appropriate modern white thread. Most of the challenge is finding a silk thread that is washable. There are many gorgeous silk threads available, but most of them are not washable (i.e., colourfast). Being colourfast is not overly important with white thread, I know, but I still want a colourfast silk embroidery thread.

The other problem is shine. I wanted a thread with some shine. For example, Needlepoint Silks are washable, but they are matte in appearance.

It's hard to believe someone can be this picky when we're talking about hard-to-find antique embroidery supplies. Just call me Goldilocks!

Recently, I came across some washable filament silk embroidery floss from Japan that is available through Superior Threads. It is called 'Soie et' and is made by Fujix. I ordered some, of course, and hoped it would work. I ordered all three available whites. It's not as shiny as the vintage silks, but has more shine than other options I've considered.

Society Silk Violets: Selecting white silk threads for the border

I stitched a sample to see how it would do after washing and ironing.

Society Silk Violets: Testing white silk threads for the border

I think I've found a winner! The silk seemed shinier after washing/ironing.

Side note: I used a Micron pen to write notes on the fabric which is supposed to be permanent. It nearly washed out! I don't know what to think about that.

Mounting the Linen

For me, the scariest part of this entire endeavour was always going to be mounting the antique linen in a hoop and stretching it. The old fabric seemed sturdy, but it's still around 100 years old, possibly older.

I thought about using a slate frame, but preferred to be able to turn the piece as it is stitched. The design is about 10" in circumference so would fit nicely into a 12" hoop. Still, would the fabric stand up to being stretched tightly in the hoop?

I attached the stamped linen to a piece of sacrificial muslin/calico with good sturdy herringbone stitches. (When I tighten the fabric in the hoop I pull on muslin, not the antique fabric.)

Then I mounted it into the hoop and...

...had absolutely no problems.

Phew, what a relief!

Society Silk Violets: Mounted on muslin and in a hoop ready to stitch

I carefully cut away the muslin from behind the flowers. After all this time and effort, I had visions of piercing the antique linen with the scissors as I cut the muslin, but all went well.

It's been a long wait, but I now actually get to stitch an authentic piece of Society Silk.



  1. Have u seen: Gutenberg.org put in the search corticelli It will give you, free to use, the Corticelli Home Needlework 1898 catalogue by Nonotuck Silk co. The colour pics of this silk work are stunning. Also has the designs if you wish to sew them.

    1. Yes, I am familiar with the 1898 Home Needlework magazine.

      Many thanks for sharing. It's appreciated!

  2. Society Silk is really silk? I could swear I read somewhere it was rayon. I've only recently found your blog. You do lovely work! Do you wash your fabrics before use? I'm just wondering if there might have been a finish on it that washed off taking the micron pen markings with it...

    1. Yes, it is real silk. There were synthetic threads available at the time although I don't know exactly when they started to come on the market. My sense is that the synthetics came along later rather than earlier. I think when you see the words 'Society Silk' you should expect that it is real silk. If you see the term 'Art Silk' that usually indicates synthetic.

      As for the Micron pen washing out...yes, that fabric had been very well-washed prior to use. I was quite surprised at how much of the Micron ink washed out! Perhaps it needed more time to adhere to the fibres. I had written on the fabric only a few minutes before washing it. At any rate, I didn't expect the ink to nearly disappear.

      Thank you for 'finding me'. I hope you'll come back again!

  3. Interested to see how this turns out.