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February 16, 2024 Allison Fulton

Lineages of Female Makers in the Connecticut River Valley

By Allison Fulton

Figure 2: (Detail) Sarah Leavitt, embroiderer, Pole Screen, 1810. Metallic silk thread, off-white plain weave silk, metallic sequins, watercolors. 2007.19
Figure 1: Sarah Leavitt, embroiderer, Pole Screen, 1810. Metallic silk thread, off-white plain weave silk, metallic sequins, watercolors. 2007.19

In the early decades of the 19th century, young white women at academies and seminaries across New England spent their days mastering foundational arithmetic, reading, and geography while also diligently learning the decorative arts to develop morals and artistic skills. One particularly important hub for the making and teaching of these ornamental arts was the Connecticut River Valley. Schools ran up and down the valley, including the Misses Pattens’ School in Hartford, CT; the Sarah Pierce School in Litchfield, CT; the Abby Wright School in South Hadley, MA; and the still operational Deerfield Academy that is nestled among the homes of Historic Deerfield.

The co-educational Deerfield Academy incorporated the ornamental arts into its curriculum for female students from its inception in 1799. Female instructors who had honed their own craft at schools like those previously mentioned brought their artistic skill to Academy classrooms, transferring “technique, style, and iconography across regions and generations.”[1] The transfers of craft technique via these multi-generational networks of white women are on full display at Historic Deerfield, whose museum and library collections contain many exceptional examples of ornamental art objects and arts instruction manuals that illustrate the techniques used to make such objects.

During its first decade of operation, Deerfield Academy instructors placed heavy emphasis on embroidery instruction. Jerusha Williams, preceptress from 1805-1812, was especially influential in this regard. Williams studied at Misses Pattens’ School where embroidered samplers and silk needlework that often featured biblical scenes were at the center of the young woman’s education. The needlework pictures made here are characterized by a “bright and crisp style,” featuring colorful silk threads and chenille on white silk backgrounds and highly raised and padded metallic embroidery that was often used to work an eagle holding a floral garland.[2]

Figure 3: Mary Upham, Needlework Mourning Picture, ca. 1807. Silk, watercolor, graphite. 69.0470

Williams brought these techniques and styles to Deerfield Academy, as evidenced in two pieces in the Historic Deerfield collections: a pole screen worked by Sarah Leavitt in 1810 and a needlework mourning picture made by Mary Upham around 1807. Leavitt’s pole screen is flush with styles and iconographies associated with the Patten School. Hovering in a graceful arch over the top of the composition are two glimmering eagles worked in gold thread and sequins that pop out of the white silk background, a garland strung between them united in the center by overlapping silver and gold hearts. And though more muted in color to fit the somber tone of a mourning picture, Upham’s needlework picture sets off the cornflower blue watercolor background—a hallmark of many Deerfield Academy compositions during this period—against varying textures of layered silk and chenille threads that bring the trees and grasses to life in a range of green and yellow hues.

Figure 4: Detail of trees in upper left corner of Figure 3. 69.0470

When Jerusha Williams left the Academy in 1812, Orra White Hitchcock assumed the role of preceptress, ushering in a new era for ornamental arts instruction at the school. Turning away from the detailed embroidery taught by her predecessor, White Hitchcock’s fine arts instruction emphasized drawing, watercolor painting, and cartography. She cultivated her students’ drawing and painting skills by having them copy portraits and landscape scenes in a distinct dappled stencil style from popular prints onto paper for beginning students, and, for the more advanced students, onto hand fire screens and wooden boxes. [3] Copying fashionable images was common practice at the time, taught by teachers like White Hitchcock and reinforced by the plethora of textbooks and instruction manuals marketed to young girls. Volumes such as The Young Women’s Companion, or, Frugal Housewife (1811) and The Cabinet of the Arts (1805) detailed directions and provided exemplary illustrations for drawing outlines and transferring, enlarging, or contracting source images.

Learning to copy images was also at the heart of schoolgirl mapmaking. In an effort to help students master the principles of geography and cultivate ornamental art and penmanship skills, they were asked to replicate maps from mass-market atlases and geography and history textbooks. White Hitchcock likely learned the detailed art of mapmaking at Susanna Rowson’s Academy in Roxbury, MA. At Deerfield, White Hitchcock similarly taught her students to copy in ornate script and detailed outline engraved maps from Jedidiah Morse’s famed textbook Geography Made Easy (1798), producing large maps for display in the classroom or parlor walls at the students’ homes.

Figure 6: Instruction page from Thomas Hodson’s “The Cabinet of the Arts,” 1805. Historic Deerfield Library.


Figure 5: Detail of chenille threads in far right of Figure 3. 69.0470

By copying illustrations, be they double hemisphere world maps, biblical and historical scenes, or landscape views, from popular visual culture sources through the techniques of their teachers, young girls at academies developed unique artistic styles. Rather than being a rote, non-artistic form of artistic reproduction, transforming an engraved print into a needlework or watercolor image in its likeness demanded technical experimentation and innovation. Tracing lineages of artistic techniques across institutional networks and instructor-student lineages at female academies, we can begin to tell the story of how gendered and racialized techniques shaped the aesthetics and circulation of popular visual culture in the early American Republic.

Allison Fulton is a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department at the University of California, Davis. As a recipient of a Memorial Libraries Research Fellowship, she spent 6 weeks with us in the fall of 2023 researching her dissertation “Disciplining Craft: The Gendered Making of Nineteenth-Century American Science.”

[1] Caryne Eskridge, “Sarah Hooker Leavitt’s Worktable: Women, Education, and Art Making,” Yale University Art Bulletin 2008, 62.

[2] Florence Griswald Museum, “Stitching It Together: Locations of Needlework Schools,”

[3] Hand fire screens were small decorative objects used by women to protect their faces from the heat of a fire while simultaneously showing off their comportment and artistic talent (Suzanne L. Flynt, Ornamental and Useful Accomplishments: Schoolgirl Education and Deerfield Academy, 1800-1830 (Deerfield, Massachusetts: Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association and Deerfield Academy, 1988), 34. Many decorative objects made by White Hitchcock’s students are on display at the PVMA Memorial Hall Museum.

Figure 7: “A New Map of the World,” from Jedediah Morse’s “Geography Made Easy,” 1798. PVMA Library.
October 17, 2020 Historic Deerfield

Blue and White Needlework Table Scarf

Maker(s): Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework
American (1896-1926)
Title: table scarf
Date Made: 1896-1926
Type: Household Accessory; Textile
Materials: textile: polychrome linen embroidery; white, plain-weave linen
Place Made: United States; Massachusetts; Deerfield
Measurements: overall: 18 3/8 x 42 1/4 in.; 46.6725 x 107.315 cm
Accession Number:  HD 1998.5
Credit Line: Museum Collections Fund
Museum Collection:  Historic Deerfield

Linen table scarf made by a member of The Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework, which is perhaps the most famous group in the arts and crafts revival that occurred in Deerfield at the turn of the 20th century. Margaret Whiting (1860-1946) and Ellen Miller (1854-1929), the Society’s founders, created replicas and new designs based on 18th century New England crewelwork for Deerfield tourists and prosperous patrons. About twenty-five Deerfield women were paid to embroider vegetable-dyed linen yarns on hand-spun linen cloth. If their work was of sufficient quality, a flax wheel with a “D” was embroidered on the piece by one of the two founders as a “seal of approval.” This table scarf is an example of Pattern No. 7: Shepherd’s Thistle. This scarf is made of unbleached linen cloth with linen embroidery threads with traditional Blue and White Society stitches, in three shades of blue, plus white, detailing the large thistle at each end of the scarf. The proper right side of one end has the ‘D’ sign in a wheel, the sign of the Society. The paper label reads: “The Deerfield Society of Blue/ & White Needlework/ Embroideries of Original/ Design in Natural Dyes/ Established in 1896/ At the Sign of the Wheel/ Old Deerfield Massachusetts”. Handwritten on the label is “No. 7/ Shephard’s Thistle”.

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February 3, 2020 Ned Lazaro

Wearable Gardens: Nature Embellishes the Human Figure

By Ned Lazaro
Curator of Textiles

The depiction of flowers to decorate and embellish textiles has been an integral part of clothing for thousands of years. Where actual flowers wilt and die, realistic and stylized representations on fabric copying flower colors and shapes, and symbolizing life and renewed growth, survive. Mirroring a growing interest in plants and gardens, the appearance of flora on textiles likewise increased and diversified.[1]  Eighteenth-century textiles worn for dress display some of the most elaborate and beautiful examples of flora, both real and stylized. Woven, embroidered, painted, and printed flowers depicted on clothing reveal the genre’s popularity. They delighted the eye, conjured faraway lands, and illustrated humankind’s attempts to harness fleeting beauty onto the human form.

Woven Flora

The eighteenth century’s drawloom allowed for unparalleled and realistic representations of flowers in woven textiles (Fig. 1). Floral patterns were first drawn out by specialized designers who found inspiration in nature, gardens, and the work of other artists. Some also received academic training.[2] Successful designers had an understanding of what was possible for master weavers to create using a complicated loom that bound warp and weft threads in a myriad of ways.

Fig.1, Bernard Direxit (engraver). “Soierie, Etoffes Brochées. Élévation Perspective du Métier pour Fabriquer les Etoffes Brochées garnide tous les cordages et Agrets.” Denis Diderot, Recueil de planches, XI, pl. LX.

These artists also paid attention to fashion, usually emanating from France, with current trends and the relentless desire for novelty leading the way. One such trend began in the 1730s. At that time, French and English weavers began depicting flowers more realistically. Artistic improvements in the weaving of brocaded silks created an effect known in French as points rentrés, adding shading, and therefore depth, to flowers, buds, and fruit (Fig. 2a, b) by interlocking brocading threads.[3] Motifs grew considerably in size as the vogue for more detailed and lifelike flowers became possible. Large, asymmetrically repeating motifs, as well as secondary or background designs, also created the illusion of realism, echoing the imperfections of nature. The inclusion of metallic thread further heightened the allure of these flowers (Fig. 3a, b). When new, these untarnished metallic elements reflected candlelight in the evening, illuminating dark interiors and captivated onlookers.

Fig. 2a, b. Gown and detail, England (Spitalfields), woven from a design by Anna Maria Garthwaite (1690-1763), c.1743. Polychrome, weft-patterned silk (brocade) patterning; off-white, plain-weave silk. F.098.
Fig. 3a, b. Waistcoat and detail, probably Lyon, France, 1730s-1740s. Polychrome, weft-patterned silk and metal (brocade) patterning; green, plain-weave ribbed silk. F.191.

Embroidered Flora

Embroidery is the process of using a needle to add design to an already-woven fabric or other ground (such as leather). Embroidery was uniquely suited to represent flowers in the eighteenth century; a needle and thread could easily create small, detailed motifs in ways ordinary weaving could not achieve (Fig. 4).  Embroidery also allowed for a higher degree of individualization in designs not possible with weaving (Fig. 5a-c).

Fig. 4. Waistcoat pattern, England or France, 1770s. Gouache paint; laid paper. Mr. and Mrs. Hugh B. Vanderbilt Fund for Curatorial Acquisitions, 2001.48.1.
Fig. 5a-c. Petticoat and details, probably England, 1721. Polychrome, two-ply worsted embroidery (crewel); white, twill-weave linen and cotton (fustian) ground. Museum Collections Fund, 2007.5.

Like weaving, formal instruction in embroidery guilds in England and France was almost exclusively for men. However, women had the chance to embellish their appearance, and that of a loved one, through embroidery done in more informal settings such as the home, or taught as an ornamental art at a school. The mastery of stitches could later serve as a creative outlet for some women to embellish items of clothing such as petticoat hems (Fig. 6). Regardless of the context of training, skilled embroidery and a variety of stitches created nuanced shading and texture that added to a floral motif’s lifelike qualities.

Fig. 6. Petticoat hem detail, possibly American, mid-late 18th century. Polychrome, two-ply worsted embroidery (crewel); off-white, plain weave linen. Gift of Jane Dow Bromberg, 86.088.

Painted and Printed Flora

Seventeenth-century Indian painted-and-printed cottons captured the interests and imaginations of England and Europe. The finest examples of chintz trumpeted the skill of Indian artisans, especially those from the southeast Coromandel Coast, who used a combination of mordant- and resist-dyeing techniques on mostly plain-woven cotton fabrics to create detailed and colorfast designs.[4] Enterprising people in the West soon sent designs, or musters, to these Indian craftsmen to copy in the hopes of better appealing to customer tastes back home. Besides colorfast designs, the ability of these Indian artisans to create patterned fabric featuring white, undecorated grounds to set off vibrantly hued motifs only increased their vogue in the West (Fig.7a, b).

Fig. 7a, b. Petticoat and detail, painted and printed, mordant- and resist-dyed, plain weave quilted cotton, India and England, 1750-1800. F.654.

By the early eighteenth century, long frustrated by their lack of success replicating the colorfast techniques of India, English and European printers and dyers began experimenting in earnest (Fig. 8). These efforts eventually yielded more generalized, less detailed designs using printing techniques.  Writing about his late eighteenth-century childhood during the 1840s, Deerfield, Massachusetts, historian Epaphras Hoyt (1765-1850) remembered women in the 1770s wearing “calicos [of] stamped linen” when more popular printed cottons imported from English merchants became unavailable during the American Revolution. Hoyt recalled these homemade versions possessed motifs created by using wooden stamps that decorated the linen with motifs that “might please the eye.” But the colors achieved, using inferior, natural dyes that were locally available, did not last.[5] By the end of the eighteenth century, however, these experiments paid off. Woodblocks, engraved copper plates, and cylinders were all employed to produce stylized floral designs, which also became smaller as the century ended (Fig.9a, b).

Fig. 8 “Calico Printing,” from John Barrow, A Supplement to the New and Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. London, 1754.
Fig. 9a, b. Gown and detail, English and American, c. 1800. Blue and green, block-printed, plain-weave, glazed cotton; undyed, plain-weave linen lining. Hall and Kate Peterson Fund for Paintings, Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, 2019.6.

In addition to their pleasing, decorative effects, the inclusion of two-dimensional flowers on textiles worn for dress on three-dimensional bodies held deeper meanings in Western society. Flowers could spark conversation and interest. New or exotic flora could signal knowledge of the latest trends in horticulture or an awareness of different cultures.[6] In this way, these fabrics served as portable libraries or communicators of a person’s knowledge, as well as reflect their access to, and knowledge of, the latest fashions.

[1] Vanessa Remington, Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden (London: Royal Collection Trust, 2015).

[2] Lesley Ellis Miller, “Education and the Silk Designer: A Model for Success?,” in Mary Schoeser and Christine Boydell, eds., Disentangling Textiles: Techniques for the Study of Designed Objects (London: Middlesex University Press, 2002), 185-194. Moira Thunder, “Improving Design for Woven Silk: The Contribution of William Shipley’s School and the Society of Arts,” Journal of Design History 17 No. 1 (2004): 5-27.

[3] Lesley Ellis Miller, “Jean Revel: Silk Designer, Fine Artist, or Entrepreneur?,” Journal of Design History 8 No. 2 (1995): 79-96.

[4] Rosemary Crill, Chintz: Indian Textiles for the West (London: V&A Publishing, 2008).

[5] Epaphras Hoyt, “Dress of Females,” in Recollections of times and things of my early life, with a sketch of recent improvements, and remarks upon the principles of our government, on our parties & our frequent political condition (unpublished manuscript), 25. Historic Deerfield Library. Thanks to Barbara Mathews, Public Historian and Director of Academic Programs at Historic Deerfield, for bringing this to my attention.

[6] Clare Browne, “The Influence of Botanical Sources on early 18th-Century English Silk Design,” in 18th-Century Silks: The Industries of England and Northern Europe (Riggisberg; Abegg-Stiftung, 2000), 25-38.