Little did I know that evidence of male embroiderers past the medieval period would be hard to find. I had a lot of anecdotal evidence for some of the information – and fortunately know some very talented male embroiderers. It is still an unusual hobby (and profession) for men, but there is often nothing to tell the difference between the needlework done by a male and female embroiderer.
During the middle ages, embroidery as a profession was practised by both men and women and membership of embroidery guilds was open to both sexes – something that was highly unusual in the guilds.
As a hobby, embroidery was pretty much classified as a woman’s hobby – like any needlework – except in one particular, very masculine, profession.
For obvious reasons, most sailors were competent with a needle. After all, when you are at sea for 6 months at a time, you can’t just pull in to the shore when a sail rips. All sailors were skilled sewers and as time went on, they started to experiment with decoration. All of them were familiar with embroidery and they started to use the same stitches they used in sail mending to decorate clothing using coloured thread.
There are still some existing examples of their needlework, including embroidered shirts and gear bags, as well some pieces of sailcloth stitched with colourful figures, and, more commonly, images of the ship they served on. These were known as “woollies” from the thread used. This thread was either bought from home, or purchased when a ship came to port.
It wasn’t until World War I when men started to be taught embroidery as part of rehabilitation for wounds and shell shock.
These classes were run by the Red Cross for troops of the British Empire and (later) Commonwealth.
Embroidery was taught to men who would otherwise be unable to work and many of them went on to produce skilled work both as professional embroiderers and hobbyists.
The classes were revived again with the advent of World War II and this time were extended to all Allied troops. By this time, however, the need for professional hand embroiderers was very much diminished and for most of these men it remained a hobby.
In the last twenty years, however, a new batch of professional male embroiderers have emerged. These range from designers to costumiers. With the emergence of historical re-enactment as a popular hobby, there are also amateur male embroiderers making their presence felt.
Stewart Merrett is an Australian embroidery designer who started off as an illustrator and became interested in the textile arts whilst living and working in London in the 1970’s.
Another talented Australian male embroidery designer is Gary Clarke who specialises in designing candlewicking and whitework embroidery.
In England, one of the best known male embroiderers is Leon Conrad who has made Blackwork his particular specialty.
Master Timothy Wymark is a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) who has written the publication “A Stitch out of Time” and is an extremely talented embroiderer with a wealth of talent.
Links to these gentlemen’s websites are listed below.
Throughout the world there are now many gentlemen who have enthusiastically taken to the needle and are as keen as we ladies for this ancient art. It is important that guilds and stores who run classes recognise this; and I look forward to designs specially targeted to male interests and tastes and also to classes scheduled outside hours when people who work are usually at work.
If there are men in your life who show an interest, then encourage them! This craft is one where the more people who participate, the more fun it is!
Embroidery Illusions by Gary Clarke (Milner Craft Series)
Embroiderers (Medieval Craftsmen) by Kay Staniland
Stitches of History: The Art of the British Sailor
A Stitch out of Time by Master Richard Wymark
Bjarne Drews – Historical costumer and Embroiderer
Stewart Merrett Designs
Leon Conrad Designs
Gary Clarke Embrodiery
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© 2010 Megan McConnell