The earliest examples of straw embroidery we are aware of date to the 17th century. Interestingly, straw is not what breaks down over time, but rather the material it is affixed to; historically silk and velvet.
From the tiny town of Nozeroy, France, are found exquisite examples of straw embroidery works by approximately 50 nuns of the Convent of the Annunciation Celestial dated about 1650. The Straw Shop acknowledges and is grateful to Barbara Fitch, Straw Worker and Textile Artist, of England for her research specifically in straw embroidery.
With respect to The Good Shepherd alter front (shown below) she describes: “It has a medallion in the centre surrounded by wheat straw embroidery worked on a heavy white silk fabric. A two-straw plait using whole straws surrounds all motifs. The medallion depicts the good shepherd carrying a lamb across his shoulders and surrounded by sheep and pasture land. This (scene) is embroidered with tiny beads which gives the eyes of the shepherd a particular compelling appearance. Some very fine straw stalks have been used for the two-straw plaits in this altar frontal, others thicker in diameters and therefore heavier.”
Continuing with her description, she notes: “There are also examples of raised darning cord whilst couching has been used throughout. ” Altogether she observed seven different techniques utilized in the straw embroidery for the motifs of The Good Shepherd panel.
The detailed center of The Good Samaritan alter frontal below is also from the 17th century. Fitch goes on to describe this piece as having “a medallion in the centre surrounded by embroidery of natural wheat straw. The whole looks to have been worked on a duping slub silk and it would appear that some restoration has been done. The medallion depicts the Good samaritan ( a woman by a well) giving water to a man less fortunate (Jesus). Again this piece is worked completely in small coloured beads and mother of pearl. The Good Shepherd and The Good Samaritan are very similar, except that the wheat straw embroidery in the Good Samaritan is a little more compact, and the work on the sides would appear more advanced. A large scroll motif of raised darning with inlaid smaller motifs of padded brick pattern half way up on both sides, and another motif on the corners, portrays a more sophisticated technique than that depicted on The Good Shepherd.”
The third alter frontal is the Red Alter Frontal at Nozeroy. Also attributed to the seventeenth century.
The Red Altar Frontal is different to The Good Shepherd and The Good Samaritan in that there are no beads. All the embroidered embellishments on the what looks to be velvet cotton, are also made of wheat straw . This panel is approximately 10 feet long by 3 feet wide. According to Fitch’s observation, due to the sophistication of the execution of this piece, she is of the opinion this piece was made somewhat later than the previous two. Over all, it is extraordinary to realize at least 9 different embroidery techniques were discovered by Fitch based upon her observation. The 9 techniques were, two-strand plait, zig-zag (or open pattern work), couching, laid work, brick pattern padding, raised darning over straw, satin stitch over cord and straw braid.
Described as possibly French, this portion of a robe is described by the Victoria and Albert Museum as: “This straw plait decorated piece is probably the back of a small image robe (used to dress a religious statue). It was originally of crimson silk satin, but has drastically faded to cream. The robe is embroidered with two straw plait of whole stalks, couched with yellow silk to form a design consisting of scrolls forming ogee-shaped compartments which enclose a fleur-de-lis. Traces of cut thread and discoloured stitch holes within the straw design suggest that precious embellishment has carefully been removed at one point. It is likely that the use of straw was intentional and of specific importance, perhaps dressing religious statues during Michaelmas. Maybe the local saint was dressed in a straw decorated robe to further empower the blessing and protection of next year’s harvest.” Thought to be dated between 1670 and 1690.
Straw embroidery continues for the next two centuries.
The below straw embroidery panel by an anonymous artist is said to be from the Italian regions of Tuscany and Liguria from approximately 1750.
Thought be 1750 this fashion piece, known as a stomacher, comes from Victoria and Albert Museum.
Described as ” Alongside straw-plaiting and straw marquetry, a method of utilising straw in embroidery developed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Flattened straw splints were used as thread for traditional embroidery stitches, such as satin and stem stitch, couching and padded work. Straw couching can be seen in this mid-18th century stomacher. It consist of seven bands of straw splints couched to a linen band, where the straw splints are embroidered with silks in shades of blue and green in floral motifs. In the centre of each band is a six-petalled flower embroidered in silver thread with a sequin centre.”
This hat of straw plait and intricate straw embroidered designs on silk is in the collection Museum of Fine arts Boston.
Another detailed straw embroidered hat thought to be made between 1750 1775. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Boston, The Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection
Leaving the eighteenth century behind The Straw Shop is pleased to share additional examples of straw embroidery, or in some cases applique.
Also from Museum of Fine Arts Boston, The Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection, this bodice is described as, “Floral sprays embroidered with straw on pink silk taffeta.” Described simply as French, 18th century.
The skirt for the above bodice is also embroidered on pink taffeta silken is shown below:
This dress would be stunning to see. We could learn so much if we could see the reverse side.
Every non-blue area of the below photograph is made from wheat straw, either as threads or as plaits or flattened shapes.
This stunning dress is said to have been made in Italy in 1867. We show the front view as well as a side view;
Here is a detail of the bodice without the jacket.
The Straw Shop offers the follow images to better see the detailed embroidered work.
Alongside straw plaiting and straw marquetry, another method of utilizing straw in embroidery developed in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Flattened straw splints were used as thread for traditional embroidery stitches, such as satin and stem stitch, couching and padded work. The following piece is courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Circa 1760, this shoe is an example of embroidered straw splints.
The straw embroidered house shoes shown below are thought to be from the 1830s. The shoes feature interesting uses of straw plaits, horsehair and straw embroidery.
Straw has also been found to be embroidered onto netting. The Azores are most known for the following type of straw embroidery onto netting.
This is an early 19th century straw work letter case. Designed in an envelope style. A blue silk background embroidered with straw work and silk thread depicts foliate motifs, dogs, birds, and two entwined love hearts.
The case was reputedly made by Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales (1796-1817). The Princess was the only child of George Prince of Wales and Caroline Brunswick who unfortunately died at the young age of 21 during child birth.
To further substantiate the style of straw embroidered pieces of the day, we are pleased to share the additional images:
Below are some additional images to scroll through for more inspiration using straw thread as embroidery.
One image we want to share with you is this spectacular gown, mis-identified as being straw embroidery:
We believe, based solely on the above image, describing this as a straw embellished ball gown circa 1865 is incorrect. The dating of the gown may be accurate, but we believe the embroidery to be of wire or another man-made material rather than straw for several reasons. The style of straw lace and straw embroidery done was not similar to this, based on known examples of straw work from the period. For that reason, as well as its appearance in general, we feel it is identified incorrectly as straw. It may be silk, or perhaps metal work or such as these were a common embellishment in high fashion of the period.
The straw thread needed for the above shown pieces was time consuming to create. The advent of mechanized thread production essentially ended this 300 year era of straw embroidery.
Several embroiderers today consider the use of straw threads in their work. The Straw Shop is pleased to offer our completely hand spun antique straw threads. As a result, we have been approached and congratulated for making this fine, elusive material available.
Straw Threads made of rye in both natural and dyed colors are sturdy and create additional dimensions to work.
The Straw Shop carries small 13 count packages of antique natural colored rye straw threads from Switzerland. The cost of these packages are $5 each.
These packages are ideal for those who would like to add a unique texture to their designs. The antique threads average approximately 12 inches in length and should be slightly dampened prior to use.
The images below show several uses of spun rye thread. This type of work is referred to as Swiss straw work. If you look closely, you will see several designs comprise each element.
Rosettes for example are made with a tool and then are tied or sewn one to another. The Straw Shop has the tool you will need to create this look. Our book selection also offers “how to” instructions for many of the motifs. To inspire you, please enjoy this video by Mrs. Barbara Fitch, of England, who is known through-out the straw community as a most valuable resource who has shared her knowledge of Swiss Straw work and straw lace with so very many.
Although the days of fine straw embroidery appear to be over, the new interpretation on straw embroidery is practiced by a few artisans.
The below images come from 20th and 21st century straw thread artists. Perhaps the mere use of these materials today, more than 300 years later, is a tribute in itself to the art form.
The following item was gifted to the American Straw Art Museum.
Clearly different in style of thread work compared to the previous example.
Though nearly unheard of today, a few straw artists interpret straw embroidery in their creative ways. The sculptural image below is by 21st Century Joan Dulcey, USA.
Another sensational artist working in her interpretation of straw embroidery is Natalia Lashko, Ukraine. Please link on her name to read more about this exceptional artist. We are pleased new forms of straw embroidery are still expressed today.