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Embroidered Tidies – keeping the 19th century home clean and pretty!

February 28, 2017

All winter, the 1875 Tangen House has been open to dinner guests. In March, the Flynn Mansion will also be hosting guests for a special 19th century meal. These homes showcase Victorian furnishings, artifacts and many, many hand embroidered linens. When you think of 19th century embroidery—what do you picture? Google brings up exquisite images of delicate and profuse works on silks and linens; the sort of work that creates heirlooms. The sort of work that takes forever, because it’s closely worked satin stitches with scallops and French knots and other tricky-to-do-nicely stitches. Whitework embroidery enriched house linens and personal clothing throughout the century.

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But in the 1870s, not all embroidery was meant to go in a hope chest. A lot of it rested on dressing tables, on the backs of sofas, and ended up mostly covered by lamps. Instead of satin or fine linen, tidies and antimacassars could be worked on Java canvas, with geometric designs embroidered in wool. They were meant to protect furniture from things that might damage them: the hard edges of metal and glass lamp bases against tabletops, hair oil, and abrasion against upholstery. And why not do that in a way that looks pretty?

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Unlike white doilies, these tidies were not very washable. They were quickly worked in large stitches on sturdy grounds. Dyed wool on canvas would have to be washed carefully to avoid shrinking the wool or having the color run. But deeply colored wool on a natural-colored ground would not look dirty quickly, and could be shaken to remove dust, so it might not need washing at all.

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Here we have several tidies made and used at the Flynn Mansion. The designs come from Peterson’s Magazine, January 1874 and January 1875. The tidy above is protecting the marble-topped bedside table in the master bedroom from the lamp and jar on top of it. The design is from January 1874, p83. The center stars are long straight stitches, bordered by herringbone and running stitches. Canvas tidies were often fringed around the edges.

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Look at the great big stitches used to embroider the fabric. Aida canvas, like the original two-over-two weave of Java canvas, makes counting stitches easy, so designs can be lined up with each other. Unlike more formal embroidery stitches, which need practice to execute correctly, the stitches used here are ones used in basic plain sewing.

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This tidy lives under one of the candelabra on the piano in the front parlor. Its design in red and black wool uses blanket, cross, and running stitches. The cross stitches in this case are long horizontal X’s with a short stitch over the cross.

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Both of these were designed by Mrs. Jane Weaver, who contributed many textile projects to magazines like Peterson’s. Accessing 19th century patterns is not always easy. Above we have a scan of a photocopy of microfilm held by the Parks Library at ISU. The engraver of the original was careful to depict the texture of the Java canvas as well as the stitches, but the image is degraded to the point where such detail adds to the overall fuzziness. The stitches, though, are simple and bold enough to puzzle out how to do them.

The text reads “These designs may be worked on Java canvas, or honeycomb cotton material. Red and black ingrain Andalusian wool is generally used. The edge of the material, frayed out, forms the fringe.”

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This design, from January 1875 of Peterson’s Magazine p79, came out clearer than the first two. The border of seven close-packed rows of chain stitch—in seven shades of red, no less–was skipped by the embroiderer who worked the tidy below in blue and yellow. It uses the border of one of the 1874 designs, but the star pattern from this one. It’s upstairs in the east guest room of the Flynn Mansion, where the colors combine nicely with the rest of the furnishings.

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None of these designs state how big the finished project should be. A tidy might be just big enough to fit under an object and still show off some of the center motifs and border, or cover most of a table or shelf. Antimacassars were sometimes big enough to cover an entire chair back, but often just protected the top, where a head might rest against the upholstery. The maker was expected to work out the whole piece, in whatever size needed, from the corner shown in the design. And if she didn’t want to work lots of stars close together, she wouldn’t have to.

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This blue and red tidy is usually under the lamp beside the bed in the west guest room of Flynn Mansion.

Come take a peek at the Flynn Mansion tidies for yourself in March for a Flynn Mansion Dinner or in April for a Flynn Victorian Tea!

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