Tuesday, May 24, 2011


I am intrigued by the term “fancywork.” Throughout history, and certainly since the cottage industry replaced the European guilds of the middle ages, women have had many sewing tasks. A woman’s hands were busy, first in making the fabric and then sewing it into clothing and household linen.

Of course, in England, until relatively recently, there was a class division of labor. This applied to sewing as well. Aristocratic women did not sew their own clothing. They employed servants to do this work, or commissioned their gowns from modistes or dressmakers. The wealthiest women could patronize a couturier or fashion designer. At most, these higher class women may have been involved in constructing or embellishing their underclothing. In America, this was less so. Even into the early 1900's, with the exception of the lucky some who maintained servants, most American women were sewing clothing for the family at home. Many members of the household were busy at this work.

Fancywork was the opposite of this routine household sewing. Fancywork describes that bit of extra embellishment that was added to garments, linen or other household goods. It might represent embroidery, needlepoint, crocheted or knitted trim and lace, netting, beadwork, or some other kind of needlework. It may include doilies, cushions, macrame, and other items made to adorn the parlor or bedroom.

I am intrigued by the term “fancywork” partly because of antique publications of patterns and projects that were produced from the mid to late 1800's and through the turn of the century. Such publications were directed at young ladies and women of the middle and upper-classes. These women, presumably had the time to devote to making and embellishing items that were, shall we say, more impractical or sentimental in nature. Lower-class women did not engage in fancywork, I assume, because they were too busy with other things, like employed work to feed themselves or their children. Hmmmm. There is an image that stands a bit on it’s modern head. After spending a couple of hours, early this morning, trying an antique pattern of crocheted lace, I guess I can presume that I am not a lower-class woman.

Of course, circumstances changed, even in the drawing rooms of the rich and privileged. In this new century, I am touched by examples of the fancywork of ordinary women found on ordinary things. Every time I visit my favorite antiques mall, I wonder at what I find. From embroidered household linens to embellished clothing, hats and even shoes. The internet is filled with marvelous modern examples of uncommonly beautiful fancywork. Women have always loved to be surrounded by beauty; to do fancywork. It keeps us from being “lower-class.” ;o)


  1. When women today complain about not having time to "craft", I just laugh. We all have the same amount of time. Today, we have so many modern conveniences, that the ladies 100 years ago didn't have, we really don't have an excuse of not having time. Everyone has different priorities and uses their time differently, but we all have time for the things we really want to do.

  2. Donna, so true! And we are so lucky in that way. Many people wonder why I take the time to sew and such; why I can't just use the latest cute thing from China, since it is so cheap. It is a values thing for me, and a priority, as you say. Simple as that. But, I don't mind the sometimes implication behind their wonder, because I often wonder at the use of their time, as well, and the philosophy behind it.

  3. Hmm, that is very interesting... I always laugh when I think about them taking time to embellish their UNDERgarments!! haha! One lady on a Civil War sewing academy (aimed to help reenactors get the right 'look'..) Took hundreds of hours doing this beautiful needlework/embroidery on her petticoat.. I just had to laugh, but really, who would want to spend all that time on something no one will see??
    Definitely an interesting post!! Thanks for sharing this!

  4. Sarah, I'm really not surprised at the time spent on the petticoat. Some of those garments had what must have seemed like miles of yardage to sew, and then embroider. It must have made them feel pretty, huh? REALLY pretty! Plus, beginners learned on their underclothes, where the practice stitches weren't as apparent. And, it was a different life these women led. They didn't have many of the distractions that we have. Think about it, no movies, phones, internet, fewer books available... Girls, for instance, didn't go to school, but spent time learning home and hand arts. It IS interesting to think about. Thanks for keeping up with me.

  5. I have a little pajama set my mom made for me when I was an infant. It's a simple sleeveless cotton shirt with the sweetest embroidery around the neck and across the shoulders. I love it and I'm amazed at the time she spent to embellish such a practical and functional piece of clothing.
    One thing that gave women more time back in the days of fancywork is that they didn't schlep kids from school to soccer practice, to ballet practice, to music lessons...

  6. What a treasure to have from your mom, Jan. I'm hoping that Abigail will feel the same about the things that I'm making for her. And you're so right about the time, every time we leave the house it feels as thought the whole day is gone. Sigh....

  7. Ah, that is very true... I forget that girls practices on their pettis. Actually, now that I think of it that way, it's pretty clever! lol! Grown women decorating their pettis still has me smiling, but I guess you're right about them not having a whole lot to do.
    Mom and I used to joke around about wishing we could live in 'the olden days' when you had servants to do everything.. then you think about it and realize that it would get awfully boring really quickly if all you did was nothing. Makes you appreciate house cleaning, any way.. ;)


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