By the Virtue of One’s Embroidery

October 22, 2015 Updated: November 2, 2015

One might think that virtue is a quality not so easily quantifiable in a woman, yet in the 1500s the measure of a woman’s virtue could be instantly ascertained by looking at her embroidery.

The current exhibition Fashion and Virtue, Textile Patterns and the Print Revolution, 1520–1620 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art examines this concept and its cultural implications starting from the 16th century.

The exhibition, drawn largely from the Metropolitan Museum’s own collections, shows drawings, textile samples, costumes, paintings, and many textile pattern books that have miraculously survived over the centuries.

The Fashion Magazine Is Born

The exhibition was organized by Femke Speelberg, associate curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Met, who explained that the pattern books were the first fashion magazines, published quarterly. And, just like today, publishers were competing with each other while trying to cater to public taste. They did not have covers, and were meant for a domestic market.

Most pattern books perished because they were printed to be used, meaning that their pages would be cut out and pricked so as to copy the patterns of the designs onto fabric.

One of the prints in the exhibition illustrates the methods used by women to copy the patterns in the books. It depicts four women: one is transferring patterns by using the light of a candle, another simply uses the light of day to achieve transparency, a third one does it by pricking and pouncing, and a particularly skilled craftswoman is copying the designs freehand.

The boom in embroidery was due to the fact that textile trade picked up in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Textile merchants became the nouveau riche of the time and people were experimenting with silk as a new material, even importing and growing silkworms and producing their own fabrics. Silk threads became widely available, which also led to embroidery becoming a fashion statement.

Previously only members of the nobility and the church could afford high-end fabrics with sumptuous embroidery.

[The publishers] conveyed the message that if a woman applied herself to her needlework, she could measure herself to the greatest sculptors, architects and painters of the time.
— Femke Speelberg, associate curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, Met

“By 1500, everyone wanted heavily embroidered, shiny clothing, as well as patterns,” said Speelberg, adding that because of the guild system, women were no longer allowed to make their money from embroidery, but they could channel their creativity into making household items with family crests, motifs, and even personal messages. While noble women would not work on decorating bed linen and towels, they were nevertheless expected to excel at embroidery.

At the time, needlework was seen as one of the most virtuous things that a woman could do to fill her time. This was in part due to the fact that women sought to emulate the Virgin Mary who, according to medieval gospels, turned to needlework aside from prayer in her time both as a young girl as well as after the death of her son.

The book titles often served to reinforce this idea. For example, a double-page spread with patterns of interlaced knots, hearts, and snowflakes is from a book published in Venice in 1546 called “Mirror of the Thoughts of Beautiful and Virtuous Women.”

Virtue and Virtuosity

The exhibition also showcases the lace designs of Isabella Catanea Parasole—the first woman who was credited as a designer of patterns at the end of the 16th century. For people who love lace, she is still the embodiment of Italian lace production at this time.

“She was really an icon,” said Speelberg. Parasole worked with her husband on publications such as “The Virtuous Women’s Study” (1597), “The Virtuous Women’s Precious Gem” (1600), and “Flowers of Every Virtue for the Noble and Devout Matrons” (1610), to mention the pattern book excerpts that are on show.

But this didn’t mean that the subjects of the embroidery were all about piety. Themes included dancing, music, garlands of flowers and leaves, couples in courtship, and even love poems done in colorful needlework.

“At the same time the book publishers were really clever. They used the word virtue parallel with virtuosity,” said Speelberg adding, “They conveyed the message that if a woman applied herself to her needlework, she could measure herself to the greatest sculptors, architects, and painters of the time, really propelling women to excel in their work.”

The Patterns of Today

A lot of the patterns in the renaissance books are still very much in fashion today. The collection is sure to catch the attention of fashion designers who have shown time and time again that they relish the opportunity to be inspired by the designs of centuries past.

Whether any of them will also choose to somehow convey the message of the exhibition, is another matter.