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‘Curious Works’:

multi-disciplinary explorations of 17th century English female domestic embroidery 


Increasingly appreciated for its unique aesthetic, English 17th century female domestic embroidery has only relatively recently been recognised as being both a significant indicator, and a creator of, women’s material culture in early modern England. Made by affluent schoolgirls and women, the embroideries are frequently pictorial, depicting biblical and classical stories, couples and allegorical figures, usually framed by elaborate houses and rock pools and populated by realistic and fantastical creatures, plants and birds. My long-established research has focused on the many paradoxical tensions in these pieces. The print sources are European but the monarchs are often very clearly Stuart; the scale appears fantastical and while motifs are mythic others, such as houses, gardens and costume, appear to reflect reality or at least aspiration. The majority depict Old Testament bible stores at a time of increasing iconoclasm. The embroideries demonstrate both homogeneity and variety as motifs from the same sources are repeated but in different combinations and with ingeniously different stitched interpretations. The materials used – silk satin, metal threads, pearls and beads as well bird skulls, hair and feathers – are a marriage of natural and the man-made and reflect the growing luxury trades as well as growing international trade. The embroideries pose many questions. The makers are usually unknown or identified only by their initials alone. Their use and location in house is unclear – how and where were they displayed or used? The value placed on them by their makers is indicated by what appears to be frequent transmission down female lines but it is unclear how contemporaries saw them in relation to other fine and decorative arts. They have been seen as being aligned with different religious and political positions as overt or covert symbolism is interpreted but there is little indication as to whether they were seen as possessing such agency by their makers.

My research in this field takes a holistic approach combining object-centred approaches with contextual and literary sources with technical analysis, including X-radiography, in order to situate these pieces in their context by using themes, iconography, techniques, and materials to identify possible relationships, styles, political-religious aspects and origins such as groups which may have been made in the same schools or influenced by a particular teacher. Gender issues, genealogical links and survival pathways are also being examined.

Key publications   

  • Brooks, M. M. 2018. Curiosities from female hands. In: Hulse, L., ed. The Needle’s Excellency. London: Ornamental Needlework, 10-14.
  • Brooks, M. M.  2017. ‘Performing curiosity: re-viewing women’s domestic embroidery in seventeenth-century England’. The Seventeenth Century, 32(1): 1-29. On-line 3 Jan 2017.
  • Brooks, M. M. 2013. ‘No less dangerous to use than that of a Basilisk’: skin and seventeenth century English embroideries. In: G. Adamson & V. Kelly eds. Surface Tensions. Surface. Finish and the Meaning of Objects. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 98-110 and Plates 16, 17, 18 & 19.
  • Brooks, M. M. 2011-12. ‘Another freak of fashion’: Collectors, collecting, connoisseurship and changing views of 17th century English embroideries. Text, 39, 12-17.
  • Brooks, M. M., Feller, E. & J. Holdsworth. 2011. Micheál & Elizabeth Feller: The Needlework Collection I. [Guildford]: Needleprint.
  • Brooks, M. M & O’Connor, S. 2007. ‘In needle works there doth great knowledge rest’: the contribution of X-radiography to the understanding of seventeenth century English embroideries from the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford In: O’Connor, S. A. & Brooks, M. M. 2007. X-radiography of Textiles, Dress and Related Objects. Oxford: Elsevier, 237-247. 

Associated activity 

BROOKS, M. M. 2018. The Needle’s Excellency Symposium, 27 May 2017 
I have guest-curated two highly successful exhibitions at the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, based on my published research into 17th century female material culture. These integrated outreach and impact. The 2014 exhibition The Eye of the Needle presented a major private collection in the public domain for the first time. The collectors subsequently donated the collection to the museum, making these spectacular and valuable pieces (equivalent to over £500,000) available as a long-term ‘public good’.

The aim of this exhibition was to present research going beyond a study of these exquisite artefacts to engage with their importance in creating the ideal goodly and godly woman through the discipline of painstaking embroidery, reinforcing both social status and appropriate behaviour and examine how they reflected religious, political and social concerns of a turbulent period of English history. The exhibition aimed to enable visitors to learn about the embroideries as material objects but also as the part of the fabric of the lives of the girls and women who worked them at home or at school. Embroidery was considered to be a morally improving activity whilst also demonstrating social status. The implications of the choice of Biblical stories was a key part of the exhibition – arranging the embroideries by theme showed the stress on the depiction of women who were role models (Sarah) or awful warnings against immoral behaviour and unwomanly curiosity (Eve, Lot’s wife, Bathsheba). The complex tension between the real and the imagined in the embroideries was explored. The role of embroidery in dress, in the home and in a religious context was also examined. Throughout, print sources and pattern books were referenced to demonstrate how originality and creativity lay in the choice of stitches and luxurious silk and metal threads, sequins, coral, garnets and brightly coloured glass beads.

The exhibition was accompanied by a full outreach programme including gallery tours, public lectures and a study day as well as linking in with The Big Stitch, an event organised by the Embroiders Guild which attracted hundreds of embroiderers.  I led several workshops looking in-depth at selected pieces and discussed their making and meaning. Visitors could engage with these findings by seeing the actual objects in the exhibition and by participating in a variety of activities, including:

  • Free exhibition tours offered by the Museum Guides following my briefing
  • English Embroideries Trail for children 

As part of opening up the debate to wider audiences, I wrote articles for Country Life and Selvedge. Qualitative and quantitative feedback was captured from museum visitors. The exhibition evaluation was designed to capture impact while more specific feedback from the hands-on workshops tracked the impact of the exhibition on the practice of contemporary makers.  I contributed to the 2017 Symposium The Needles Excellency which accompanied the exhibition of new works inspired by pieces in the exhibition. 

Conference Papers  

  • 2021 Re-viewing women's domestic embroidery in 17th century England; lecture on-line course for Ornamental Embroidery
  • 2019 Ashmolean Museum (Members lecture series); Lecture: Mary Brooks, Stitching For Your Soul
  • 2018 Victoria & Albert Museum - Textiles Ancient & Modern Programme; Lecture: The Eye of the Needle
  • 2017 The Needles Excellency Symposium, Ashmolean Museum; Lecture: Mary Brooks, Curiosities from Female Hands
  • 2015 Auckland Castle (lecture series to accompany the exhibition Plots and Spangles: The Embroidered Vestments of Helena Wintour; Lecture: Mary Brooks, ‘Memorials of her Piety’. Women’s Sacred and Secular Embroidery in 17th Century England
  • 2014 Taste in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: Aesthetics, Corporeality, and Materiality North American Conference on British Studies. Roundtable; Lecture: Mary Brooks, ‘“Grotesque and eccentric”: Changing Attitudes to Seventeenth-Century Domestic Embroidery’