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)