Wednesday, May 30, 2012

La Danse Macabre and Embroidered Caskets-but-not-Coffins

Jo has completely finished her Dark Alphabet sampler and here it is in all its glory - isn't it stunning?

Jo personalized her sampler with these two additional squares - aren't they cool?

Even cooler - while she was stitching the alphabet, Jo wrote a poem about the alphabet - so clever!  Read all about it on Jo's excellent blog, Serendipitous Stitching!  You'll see that we just had to send Jo a little something for completing the sampler in record time - AND that we decided not to put "coffin" on the customs form - just in case, hahaha.

But now, our thoughts turn to a different kind of casket....

Casket by unknown maker at the Victoria and Albert Museum

As we journey through our needlework life, we find ourselves progressing from one interest and level of difficulty to the next, just as the young girls we admire who were stitching the samplers did.   We inspect the samplers, looking for clues as to who they were and why they were stitching what they did and who was teaching them.  At the same time, we want to emulate them.  The   Pièce de résistance for many of us is the "Casket".  That wonderful embroidered box, it holds mysterious drawers and tokens hidden within.  So few exist and so seldom out on view, it seems they too are hidden and mysterious and the search to find them can be daunting.  But as they gain more and more popularity, they begin to come into view and some that were never known to exist have been found and more continue to come forward and say "look at me too! I'm as pretty or prettier than the one before!" 

Many of us know about the Martha Edlin embroideries at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London - and if you don't know - you should!  Martha stitched her sampler when she was eight years old! 

and this one when she was nine!  

And her casket when she was eleven!

There is a great video on the V&A site which shows you all sides of the casket and inside, too.  It gave me goose-bumps to see this casket in person when I visited the V&A, and I would recommend anyone to do this.  It's one of the few that I know of anywhere on permanent exhibit.  You can also see her other embroideries there including one finished and one unfinished mirror surround using the same stumpwork techniques as on the casket!

We are seeing and hearing more and more about the needlework casket and Julie and I were lucky enough to be in one of Tricia Wilson Nguyen's classes at the Needlework Seminar in Winterthur last Fall, " A Tisket a Tasket,  Who made the Casket".  Trish has been a force to be reckoned with in the research on caskets for many years and much is owed to her research in all that is now coming to view on them.   You might be one of the lucky ones taking her current online course on Caskets.   The rest of us can follow the journey she took in her research to come to the point of offering this course by reading her blog.  The process and the number of craftsmen it is taking to reproduce all of the parts and pieces for this reproduction is fascinating.  We can hardly wait to see what everyone taking the course is designing for their special piece.

Detail from Martha Edlin's casket

Some of the fascinating information is the world of bookmaking that may have been part of the creation of these caskets.  I know I was so amazed when Tricia let us actually touch and hold parts of one of her finds and how light it was. The first words out of my mouth were balsa wood. But it's not actually balsa, but something similar.   That tells you how light it is compared to what you would guess when looking at the caskets.  The beautiful locks and keys that held the secrets inside and the wonderful decorative papers and markings on the interiors are all the extra touches that make the caskets from the past and future very special as well. 

One of the things I like is the thought of how all of us as young girls or many of us coveted that pretty jewelry box with the twirling ballerina inside. Was that our current day casket, compared to what the young girls who were creating the needlework caskets coveted?   Were there girls wishing to have one of their own? Did they realize what a treasure it was they were creating?  

I have thought of so many designs I would put on the piece if ever I was to design one.  Would it be historical and biblical or would I go more modern and use my mermaids to swim around the box with a sailing theme? What would you embroider for your casket?  Would you have a secret drawer or two and what would you put inside?  Let the dreams begin! 

Well, Julie and I haven't been able to find the time currently to be able to stitch a casket, but we may have something to share soon at "In The Company of Friends" which may hold us and some of you over until you can find the time to create one of your own as well.  Keep watching because as with anything we create, there will be a limited number available and this one has been a treasure to create.

You can follow all the research leading up to the casket class here on Tricia Wilson Nguyen's Blog.  And if you didn't get lucky enough to take Tricia's first casket class, she is taking sign-ups for a waiting list on the next-to-be-offered class, at an unknown date.  Much depends on the craftsmen working on the various parts and pieces and their timelines for the number of pieces they are able to create.

There are many images of caskets to be found on the internet that you can study and use for inspiration in planning what you would design for your casket, if you are lucky enough to create one in the coming years.  We leave you with this long list of links to try....

On Pinterest there is a category for stumpwork and you will find some images of caskets as well as inspiration for creating your own designs possible for a contemporary casket. Much of nature in plants and bugs and birds.....


  1. Great articles about pinterest and embroidered caskets! AThanks very much.

  2. LOL - I gave my daughter one of those musical jewellery boxes for Christmas!

    Great article on caskets - boxes to me at all kinds of treasure chest! And I love stitching them and investigating new techniques in making them!

  3. People can't get enough of the Dark Alphabet, no matter how many times I post a pic!

    The casket is amazing, there's a future project...

    Did I mention I'm an exhibit in the V&A? I went down for one of the Days Of Record and had my tattoos photographed. Great fun!


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