The Plimoth Jacket Really Does Dance

I’d been hoping to visit Winterthur for 20 years.  The Plimoth Jacket is what made me finally accomplish my goal.

In a project organized by Plimoth Plantation from 2006 to 2009, more than 300 volunteers of all ages and skill levels spent over 3,700 hours recreating a Stuart-style embroidered lady’s waistcoat by hand. The jacket was patterned after two examples from the 1620s in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection: one was chosen for its cut and construction; the other for the design of the embroidery.

Some volunteers worked on the silk-thread embroidery and gold plaited braid, executing the stitches using 17th-century techniques. Others focused on making the jacket’s lace borders, spending one hour to create one inch of bobbin lace. To that lace were attached “oes,” the 17th-century term for teardrop-shaped spangles that were created using tools made specifically for the project by Plimoth Plantation’s blacksmith. Creating the jacket led to discoveries about stitching techniques, the technology for making threads and spangles, and how weavers made the lining and dyed it with indigo.

I’ve read about the jacket in several of my favorite magazines, like Early American Life, PieceWork and Victoria. Friends have sent me articles about it from the newspapers in their hometowns. They all report that the jacket “dances” when its glimmering fibers and spangles catch the light.

We saved the jacket for last during our Winterthur visit. I spent 20 minutes looking at every inch of it. It really does dance.

The more you look at this magnificent thing, the more you see. Birds and snails make their way among carnations and honeysuckle. Stitching techniques make butterflies look like they’ve just landed on the jacket. Best of all, peapods reveal tiny golden peas inside.

Once I tore myself away from the jacket, I looked at other selections from Winterthur’s collection that tell the story of how needlework is created, from pattern book designs and silk skeins to embroidery techniques evident in historic textiles and works of art.

Silkwork recreations of engraved prints, a crewelwork chair cover and curtain, a whitework handkerchief of roosters and hens, and an embroidered 18th-century English stomacher and apron are some of the items on display.

The exhibit also includes three items from Mr. du Pont’s original collection. An 18th-century needle lace sampler and a piece of bobbin lace with a border of eagles were lovely to see. A sampler made by Eleanor Alexander Roosevelt (Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter-in-law) for Mr. and Mrs. du Pont for their 25th wedding anniversary is filled with representations of objects from their collection and other personal references.

Eric Blore and his Susquehanna spelling bee came to mind again when I saw the summer uniform and sea bag of a sailor who served on the steam frigate Susquehanna. The ship traveled from Norfolk, Virginia to Japan under Commodore Matthew Perry’s command, circa 1850-1854.

The exhibit shows how embroidery designs like the ones we saw in the books we had pulled at the Winterthur Library were transferred to fabric by “pouncing” colored chalk through holes punched along the lines of the original design. A wooden box containing embroidery stamps, a paper pattern with holes pierced through it and a cotton pad covered in blue chalk helped me visualize how pouncing works.

In the Winterthur Bookstore, I purchased a pin made by In The Company of Friends that turned out to be an image of a cushion cover in the exhibit. Made in Norristown, Pennsylvania in 1856, the stunning floral wreath on a black background was made from a type of wool yarn for canvaswork and embroidery that became fashionable in the 1820s. Known as zephyr or Berlin wool (for the city where it was dyed in bright colors), these woolen fibers are carded to make them soft, rather than the stiffer yarn made from worsted wool.

After reading about the Deerfield Blue & White Society, part of the late 19th-century movement to revive traditional crafts, I was happy for the opportunity to see a crewelwork curtain and table mats made by the Society. I also learned about darning samplers and how they illustrate the beauty of plain sewing techniques. A beautiful French petticoat showed me what tambour embroidery is (it’s worked with a hook, on material that has been stretched taut by two wooden hoops). A pair of garters worked by, or for, Mary Washington in 1753 looked very similar to one of the German embroidery designs of which I ordered a color scan at the Winterthur Library.

The Plimoth Jacket was even more magnificent than I had imagined.

“With Cunning Needle” is on view until January 8, 2012. A needlework conference complementing the exhibit will take place October 21-22.

If you’re as fascinated with the Plimoth Jacket as I am, you might be interested in “The Embroiderer’s Story,” a blog providing a first-hand account of the jacket’s creation.  A PDF presentation about the creation of the jacket was playing in the exhibition.  And the accompanying gallery guide is a wonderful, informative souvenir.

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