Early 17th century
Length 29 cm, circumference of wrist 26 cm
Stitches: couched, knots, raised work, satin
Materials: suede leather, wrapped purl metal thread, padding (unknown), paper, silk, floss, silk lining, metal thread fringe



The Eye of the Needle
english embroideries from the Feller collection
The Eye of the Needle displays, for the first time in public, a selection of eyecatching,
virtuoso seventeenth-century embroideries from the internationally renowned Feller Collection, together with outstanding examples from the Ashmolean’s own holdings. 

Posted 30 September 2014

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The exhibition explores the context in which these technically exacting works were made by girls and young women at home or school, and what they reveal
of the society, economy, and culture of seventeenth-century England.
The embroideries were made during one of the most turbulent centuries in English history, when religious and political beliefs split families and the country. Beyond the opportunity for demonstrating technical ability, the embroideries illustrate the themes and concerns which occupied the minds of the young women making them. They often depict biblical stories at a time when religious issues, including the use of images, aroused great controversy.

Box: Scenes from the life of Abraham
Pre 1665
29.7  x 26.5 x 18.5 cm
Maker: Possibly Miss Bluitt, later Mrs Payne
Materials: silk threads with paddled appliqué silk satin. wire-wrapped silk
©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Lady's cap
Early 17th century
From front to back seam 15 cm, face turning 44 cm
Stitches: buttonhole, long and short, twisted chain
Materials: linen threads, wrapped metal threads, silk floss, sequins
Ground: plain weave linen
©M & E Feller. Photography by R Holdsworth FRPS

Similarly, during a period of increasing urbanization the pictorial pieces show idyllic
country scenes with imaginary creatures and flowers.
The role that these embroideries played in both creating and reflecting ideals of feminine behavior is also an important part of their history. The seventeenth century saw periodic and often raucous pamphlet wars over the status, roles and education of women. Many girls attended school but the curriculum they followed prioritized the attainment of socially acceptable skills and moral worth over intellectual achievement

While many of the embroideries illustrate biblical themes inventively worked into secular contexts, and the use of myths shows women’s engagement with the classics, needlework was, above all, a valued feminine skill. If a girl excelled at it she could hope for social and religious rewards. In a 1688 ‘conduct book’ ascribed to school mistress, ‘domestic goddess’ and author, Hannah Woolley, needlework is described as, “both needful and pleasant, and commendable in any woman, for it is time well spent for both profit and delight.”

Panel: The Temptation of Abram and Eve
Mid 17th century
57 x 58 cm
Stitches: tent, Gobelin, plaited Gobelin, couching
Materials: wrapped metal thread, silk thread
Ground: plain weave linen
©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The Eye of the Needle displays embroideries which include colourful raised and flat work pictorial panels, fine white and polychrome samplers, household items such as boxes and cushions, and dress accessories including caps, coifs and gloves. This highly feminine embroidery shows visual delight in complex surfaces created through individual use of stitches, colourful silks, metal threads, pearls and semi-precious stones. The use of expensive, luxury materials connects the embroideries with trade, with some pieces depicting symbolic figures of a wider world.

Panel: Esther and Ahasuerus
Mid to late 17th century
29.7 x 43.7 cm
Stitches: tent
Materials: silk floss
Ground: plain weave undyed linen
©M & E Fleer. Photography by R Holdsworth FRPS

Frog Purse
17th century
6 x 7.5 x 1.5 cm
Materials: leather, silk, metal thread on silk
gAshmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Dr Mary Brooks, curator of the exhibition, says: ‘Micheál and Elizabeth Feller have created a collection which is a visual feast. Ranging from exquisite whitework miniatures to colourful, lavishly decorated embroideries, these “curious works” intrigue and delight. This exhibition offers a rare opportunity to explore historic needlework in the context of seventeenth-century religion, politics, trade and culture through a feminine perspective

Dr Catherine Whistler, Senior Curator of European Art, Ashmolean Museum, says: ‘We are profoundly grateful to Micheál and Elizabeth Feller for the opportunity to display their world-renowned collection together with the Ashmolean’s important embroideries. We hope that this exhibition will have great appeal, not only to the many enthusiasts for textiles and embroidery, but also to audiences who wish to learn what these beautiful pieces can tell us about a fascinating period of English history and the life of girls and young women in the seventeenth century. ’

Sampler: Susanna and the Elders
Mid to late 17th century
37 x 25 cm
Stitches and techniques: basket, cut and drawn work, detached needlepoint, infilling, needle weaving
Materials: coral beads, glass beads, linen threads, wrapped metal threads, pearls, silk floss
Ground: plain weave undyed linen
©M & E Feller. Photography by R Holdsworth FRPS

Late 17th century
28.2 x 21.4 cm
Stitches: chain, long and short, satin, running
Materials: wrapped metal threads, silk floss, silk binding ribbon
Ground: plain weave linen
©M & E Feller. Photography by R Holdsworth FRPS

Exhibition: The Eye of the Needle: English Embroideries from the Feller Collection
Dates: 1 August–12 October 2014
Venue: Gallery 33
Tickets: £5/£4 concessions; free to under-12s
Publications: Micheál and Elizabeth Feller: The Needlework Collection 2 vols published by Needleprint;
Ashmolean Museum
Beaumont Street
UK-Oxford OX1 2PH
+44 (0)1865-278006

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