Plain & Fancy: American Women and Their Needlework 1650-1850

August 10, 2009


plain and fancyIn her book, Plain & Fancy: American Women and Their Needlework 1650-1850, Susan Burrows Swan not only provides us with a history of needlework but also an interesting look at society’s take on women during that time. In writing this book, Swan’s objective was to show “the integral part needlework played in the lives of these women and how it allowed them to express themselves in a male dominated society.” Swan believes that needlework was the most acceptable outlet for creative expression. She chose her title because the terms “plain” and “fancy” describe the lives of these women as well as their needlework; types of which included canvas work, crewel, lace, Dresden work and tambour work.

It was essential for a girl of “common circumstances” to learn to sew as she made or mended all cloth products in the home. A wealthy girl learned to sew because she, more than likely, would have servants and would need to know if they were sewing correctly; however, she could be responsible for some of the sewing tasks as well. Regardless of economic stature, sewing was also seen as a necessary skill needed to attract a husband. Despite all of this, it’s important to remember that a woman’s skills and contributions to the household provided her with a great deal of satisfaction since household textiles were held in very high regard.

Plain sewing was comprised of the “essential forms of household needlework” making cloths, knitting and marking household linens. This work required simple stitches and any girl who could not do it was considered “odd”. All women were responsible for plain sewing either doing it themselves or arranging for others to do it for them. It provided those women with little to no household help the chance to sit down for awhile and still be doing something useful and productive. It also allowed her to socialize. She could bring it with her when she went visiting or engage in it when socializing at home. It didn’t require a lot of attention so she could join in the conversation or listen while a story was being read.

Fancy needlework, on the other hand, included all non-utilitarian sewing. Only women in comfortable financial circumstances had the time to complete this type of needlework. According to Swan, most of the finest needlework was produced by women of the more prosperous classes between 1700 and 1780. This was an age when enormous importance was attached to household possessions as the home was truly the centerof all things. Fine furnishings illustrated a family’s prosperity and social standing. Fancy needlework represented a woman’s contribution to the beauty of the family’s possessions.

As with many things the popularity of needlework waxed and waned over the years. In some ways the Victorian era was the demise of fancy needlework at least until more recent times. As Swan states “the product of a simpler, pre-industrial age, fancy needlework was smothered in Victorian domesticity. Later generations of women, perhaps in admiration of what their colonial forebears had wrought, revived the skills, creatively adapting stitches and designs to contemporary purposes.”

To find this interesting book and others by Susan Burrows Swan check online at


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