May Morris. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A skill taught to centuries of girls across multiple countries and cultures, cross-stitch has been an educational tool, an art, a hobby, and a subversive form of protest. Part three looks at the decline of cross-stitch during the world wars — and the passionate girl who revived it. 

After centuries of popularity, cross-stitch went into decline during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From the 1830s, the craze for Berlin woolwork took over. Using printed canvas patterns, girls would produce many articles for the home – footstools, purses, cushions, firescreens or pin cushions. By 1840, 14,000 patterns for Berlin woolwork were available in England, all simple to stitch from a coloured chart. 

Embroidery and cross-stitch lost further popularity after the first embroidery machine was invented by Joseph Heilman in 1828. World Wars I and II exasperated the decline in Britain, as girls and women needed to support the war effort. Both wars brought strict rationing to many countries and thread was soon classed as a luxury item. 

However, one girl protected the art of embroidery. Born in 1862, May Morris was the daughter of famous artist and designer William Morris, the founder of the Arts & Crafts Movement. Despite the trend against cross-stitch, May was passionate about embroidery and worked to revive it. She learned to embroider from her mother and her aunt, and at the age of 19 she enrolled at the National Art Training School to study embroidery. At the age of 23 she became the Director of the Embroidery Department at her father’s enterprise Morris & Co. Resurrecting the embroidery style which would be termed ‘art needlework’, May promoted freehand stitching and delicate shading to encourage self-expression — in contrast with the ‘paint by numbers’ aesthetic of Berlin woolwork. May continued to teach embroidery throughout her life and is remembered for keeping the craft alive. 

May went against the trend to promote and protect a craft she loved. Have you ever gone against the trend? What hobby would you protect from going out of fashion? 

-Rosalie Elliffe
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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