Antique, Vintage Society Silk Embroidery—Painting with a Needle and Thread

An elaborately embroidered Society Silk table round, measuring 28 inches across, with drawnwork highlights. Dating to the mid-1800s, society silk embroidery began in England. The first public display of this needlework was at the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia, after which it became very popular in this country.

More than a century ago, women created amazing works of art with a needle and silk thread. Known as society silk embroidery, the luster and smoothness of the silk thread in these pieces, combined with the expert shading and mixing of stitches, created realistic florals and botanicals that, in some cases, rival painted pictures.

Dating to the mid-1800s, society silk embroidery began in England. The first public display of this needlework was at the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia, after which it became very popular in this country. American women embraced this elegant embroidery style with enthusiasm, producing doilies, runners, table covers and other decorative needlework pieces. Most of these pieces were done from the turn of the 20th century and into the 1920s. This popular pastime became fashionable for all women, not just those in high society, as the name implies. However, the silk threads and flosses were more expensive and, therefore, used more often by women of more means.

Needlework companies produced many different patterns, kits and floss, providing women with a huge variety of projects. At the turn of the century, silk thread was preferred because it tended to be more stable and hold its color better. Early cotton flosses were not colorfast and would run if they got wet. The silk floss—or thread—used in silk embroidery came in hundreds of colors and shade variations providing nimble needleworkers with the palette to create masterfully shaded and realistic works of art. The skilled needleworker could create elaborately stitched pieces that realistically copied nature’s own shading and coloring of flowers and plants.

A close-up of the shading on the roses in the Society Silk table round (above).

There are at least six different shades of pink in the light pink rose creating a very realistic flower.

The silk floss has a beautiful luster that enhances the shading effects.

Another close-up showing the expertly created shading.

The most outstanding characteristic of silk embroidery is its very detailed shading and colors. One flower can have six or seven different shades of a single color, creating an expertly represented floral specimen. The shading was created by running stitches up into others and overlapping them so there was no discernible line separating the two shades of color. This created a smooth, even shading effect. That’s why this needlework is sometimes referred to as art embroidery or needlepainting. The satin stitch was used most often, although other stitches were also used.

Florals, botanicals, foliage and fruits—particularly strawberries—were the most common subjects. Roses, violets and carnations are the flowers most often seen in silk embroidery. Most pieces are silk embroidery on linen. Occasionally, you will find a silk or cotton base fabric. Flowers and designs in pastel colors are the most common. Vibrant reds can be found in pieces with strawberries or holly berries. Patterns are usually not symmetric, unlike many later embroidery kits.

A number of companies, including Corticelli Silk, Belding Brothers and New London Wash Silk Company, produced kits and floss for silk embroidery. Corticelli Silk was one of the premier silk threads available at the time. The company boasted that the colors were almost always colorfast when washed in cool or tepid water. Since cotton embroidery threads of the time were not always colorfast, silk thread was preferred for embroidery.

A seashell design on this silk embroidered round (21 inches across).

This round is very unusual in that each shell is different.

Some of the beautiful shading on the shells.

More shading on the shells.

Based in Florence, Mass., Corticelli Silk was one of the world’s largest producers of silk threads made from raw silk imported from Japan. In its 1895 booklet, “Silk – It’s Origin, Culture, and Manufacture,” the Monotuck Silk Company describes the appeal of the floss: “Perhaps one of the most enormous uses to which the product of the Corticelli Mills is put, is that of embroidery and art needlework. It is a truly feminine accomplishment, sometimes even exceeding an artist’s brush in the exquisite workmanship displayed. Corticelli embroidery silk ranks first in popular favor for this work, not only on account of its smoothness and luster, but for its absolutely fast color. The perfection of the multitudinous colors, and almost indefinable graduations of hue enable the embroider to shade the petals so as to closely imitate the real bloom of the flowers.”

An advertisement from the late 1800s for Corticelli Wash Embroidery Silk, further promotes its top of the line qualities. “For fancywork and art needlework, Corticelli Wash Embroidery Silk is the best silk made. Every color is dyed absolutely fast and our guarantee goes with every skein.” Corticelli Filo Silk was the product of choice for the “fine and delicate shading of flowers, leaves and conventional designs on any smooth, closely woven material, especially linen.” This select thread came in more than 350 fast colors.

The designs are usually not symmetrical on silk embroidery.

A very nice silk embroidery round measuring 20 inches across in a rose pattern.

A close-up showing the detailed shading of the roses.

Coasters or small rounds like these are readily available today.

The silk thread companies enjoyed booming business until the Great Depression. The hard economic times forced women to choose more economical threads and floss. By then, rayon had been developed and was commercially available. Rayon was nicknamed “artificial silk” because it had a softness, shine and luster similar to silk threads. Rayon also had the advantage of being able to take and hold deep and vibrant dyes. Due to its low price and similarities to silk, rayon enjoyed immense popularity from 1925 to the 1950s. During the same time, cotton threads were much improved and even became color-fast. All these factors had a major impact on the silk floss manufacturers, and in 1930, Corticelli Silk went out of business.

Today, collectors can still find different examples of society silk embroidery in good condition. Doilies and table rounds or small table toppers are the most commonly found pieces. Examples range from the simple, ordinary pieces to elaborately detailed and exquisitely worked pieces of needlework. Although the silk was advertised as colorfast, collectors should handle these pieces with care. I have found that a gentle hand wash in cold water with a very mild soap usually is all that’s needed. Remember that many of these pieces are more than a century old!


Lynda Kolski is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage textiles.

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One Comments

  1. Janet Marcus says:

    My great great Aunt, a talented needleworker worked in a shop in NYC where she was commissioned by wealthy women to produce these items. The shope stocked the silk and the women picked out the design and colors and my relative did the actually embroidery. Most of the work she andothers at the shop produced were for table linens.

    If you intend to collect these items you must also be aware that they were commercially produced in the orient as well.