The Needle's Excellency

The needles excellency -- a new booke wherin are diuers admirable workes wrought with the needle ; newly inuented and cut in copper for the pleasure and profit of the industrious, by John Taylor

My ambition!

One of my other interests (besides books) is embroidery.  I like a lot of different kinds of embroidery and lately I've been getting into some historical forms.  I've been learning some crewel work and my next ambition is to learn stumpwork--a hideous name for a lovely kind of embroidery with three-dimensional elements.  I made my family get me some pretty stumpwork books for Christmas, and I'm even taking a gorgeous online course about embroidered caskets.

Naturally, therefore, I also like reading about historical embroidery.  It's fascinating, people.  In Europe a few hundred years ago, embroidery was not only an important part of a girl's education and abilities, it was considered to be a virtuous pastime that encouraged moral thought.  Women used their skills to depict scriptural stories (the ones starring women, mostly) and moral symbols.  They also sometimes asserted themselves politically and justified their actions through these same skills.   I just discovered the existence of a scholarly kind of book from the 80s about all this, so I'm excited to get that on ILL any day now.

Meanwhile, I had some fun reading Jacobean poetry in praise of sewing and embroidery.  This is not at all artistic, great poetry; this is witty verse for the masses with a little morality thrown in.  "In Praise of the Needle" is a long poem full of the kinds of wordplay and conceits people had so much fun with back then:

The Needles sharpenesse, profit yeelds, and pleasure,
But sharpenesse of the tongue, bites out of measure.
A Needle (though it be but small and slender)
Yet is it both a maker and a mender;
A graue Reformer of old Rents decayde,
Stops holes and seames, and desperate cuts displayde.
Thus is a Needle prou'd an Instrument
Of profit, pleasure, and of ornament:
Which mighty Queenes haue grac'd in hand to take,
And high-borne Ladies such esteeme did make,
That as their Daughters Daughters vp did grow,
The Needles Art, they to their children show.
And as 'twas then an exercise of praise,
So what deserues more honour in these daies,
Then this? which daily doth it selfe expresse,
A mortall enemy to idlenesse.
This long poem is followed by sonnets praising ladies and queens, including Katherine of Aragon, Mary I, and Elizabeth I.  The book was printed in 1631, after Elizabeth's death; I really kind of think that had she still been living, Taylor would not have put those first two names in.

Katharine first married to Arthur Prince of Wales, and afterward to Henry the 8. King of England.

I Read that in the seauenth King Henries Raigne,
Faire Katherine, Daughter to the Castile King,
Came into England with a pompous traine
Of Spanish Ladies, which she thence did bring.
She to the eight King Henry married was,
And afterwards diuorc'd, where vertuously
(Although a Queene) yet shee her dayes did pas
In working with the Needle curiously,
As in the Tower, and places more beside,
Her excellent memorials may be seene:
Whereby the Needles praise is dignifide
By her faire Ladyes, and her selfe, a Queene.
Thus for her paynes, here her reward is iust,
Her workes proclaime her praise, though she be dust.

A 1671 casket at the V&A depicting the seven virtues and Harmony

 The author, John Taylor, called himself "The Water-Poet" because he mostly made his living as a waterman on the Thames.  He also produced rough and witty books and verse -- quite a lot of it.  He courted fame by taking stunt journeys like a rowing trip in a paper boat, or walking to Scotland without any money, and then writing about it.  (It's a traditional hobby, I guess!)  Since he wrote a lot about everyday life and things, historians love him.  Take a look at John Taylor sometime.


  1. When I read that you were taking an online course on embroidering caskets, I thought, Seriously?!!! But when I scrolled down and saw that picture ...... Oh wow! It's absolutely beautiful!!! I've never embroidered, but I've cross-stitched a few things and really enjoyed it. But that's when I had time .... which I don't anymore .... sadly .....

  2. Yeah, most people do a double take over the word 'casket,' but it's meant in the older usage of a small box for treasures. The whole topic is just FASCINATING--the caskets were usually done by young girls as a crowning accomplishment--like a sampler, but fancier. Then a bookbinder would put the embroidery on the casket, which often has little 'secret' drawers and things tween girls like. :) Anyway, I am having fun with it.

    I generally do embroidery in the evneings while watching a little TV with my husband. Idon't get nearly as much done as I'd like--my arms complain, for one thing. Slow and steady gets it done.

  3. This is a really interesting topic! A friend of mine does embroidery portraits of pets, and I'm just blown away by how much effort and attention to detail embroidery requires. It's a skill that doesn't get enough attention these days, IMHO.

    Anyway, this John Taylor person seems like a fun dude. I guess "stunt journalism" is an older gimmick than I would have expected, haha.

  4. This sounds really interesting. I will have to look into it further!


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