State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 36 December 1985

Waistcoat embroidered by Mrs. Hugh Peck, decorated with posies of silk roses. (H8406, La Trobe Collection. Photograph by Mary Cox.)

Detail of table cover, c.1900, by Miss Keppel. (H31546, La Trobe Collection. Photograph by Mary Cox.)


Colonial Embroideries In The La Trobe Library

The La Trobe Library's textile collection, though small, is quite rich in items from Australia's colonial days. Amongst the collection there are a number of embroideries of considerable interest, and these we will discuss.
English flowers were possibly the most popular subjects for colonial embroiderers. The ladies maintaining sentimental memories of their homes in England of gardens full of flowers, delicately recreated their favourite flowers in silk threads in the hope of keeping part of their homeland with them. One such lady was Mrs. Stokes, who in the eighteen-thirties whiled away the long hours on board ship during her passage to Australia by embroidering a bunch of flowers including tulips, roses, carnations, anemones, etc. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that colonial women were able to come to terms with their new homes and its unruly ‘bush’ and began to create compositions of wattle, gums, tea tree, etc., which were often worked with chenille and beads. Unfortunately the collection does not hold any such items.
In the La Trobe Library's collection we can see the successive trends in embroidery fashion as they arrived in the colonies. The earliest piece we have already discussed, that of polychrome silk on a tussah silk (natural wild silk) background. A similar example of this can also be seen in a later piece which belonged to one of the Talbot region's pioneers, Frederick Brown Salmon. This piece, a waistcoat, is a very homely product, while still reflecting current European fashions. Worked in polychrome perle silk, it features a border of intertwining English flowers. The waistcoat is probably the work of a young girl, just starting to learn the art of embroidery, as it is naive and unsophisticated but still maintaining a freshness.
Another nineteenth century needlework fashion to reach Australia was Berlin woolwork. The Library's collection includes some interesting examples of this, but the most outstanding pieces are two waistcoats executed by a Mrs. Peck. A Scots-woman by birth, Mrs. Peck arrived in Australia in 1844. She was obviously an expert needlewoman, as the waistcoats are of the very highest quality. The two Berlin pieces are bold geometric designs, which have been so skilfully worked that the three pockets are almost imperceptible so as not to disturb the overall pattern.
Another example of Berlin woolwork can be seen in H 10424. This piece displays typical Victorian tastes for rich opulent pattern, in such normally simple items such as these slippers. The Beidermeyer slippers, as they are known, were worked in wool on canvas, then cut out and made up. We see this pair in an unfinished state and history tells us that these two were the work of a very young girl.
We now return again to the work of the skilful Mrs. Peck. Another of her waistcoats, also in the collection, is particularly beautiful. It features posies of silk roses embroidered on black velvet. Here, once again, Mrs. Peck matched all of the roses so that they were evenly distributed, and matched on either side of the coat. The technique used in the embroidery of the tent stitch roses is of particular interest, and of great skill. This was done by first laying a piece of even-weave linen on top of the velvet, executing the embroidery using a counted stitch pattern, then, when complete, drawing the linen threads out, leaving only the embroidery on the velvet ground.
The highlight of the collection, however, must be a magnificent table cover from about 1900, made by Miss Keppel. This again reflects the current English work of the Arts and Crafts Movement. This work is very dramatic because of the combination of bold pattern and bright colour on a flat black felt ground. The tablecover was worked in large satin stitches using a heavy perle silk thread; this gives the work strength and vitality, which during that period were more important than technical perfection.
Another piece in the collection was also made by Miss Keppel. It is a drawing room apron. This, too, is worked in polychrome perle silk on a black background, using large satin stitches. Aprons such as these were worn when entertaining guests for tea.
As one can see, from the descriptions and accompanying photographs, the textile collection at . the La Trobe Library, though small, is indeed rich and reflects nineteenth century developments in the art of embroidery.