Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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Making an Embroidered Box


I’ll tell you a secret. I’m nuts about the 16th – 17th century embroidered boxes (or caskets), and I’ve always had this deep-down-secret desire to make one. I toy with the idea in my head, when I should be thinking about other things. I contemplate acting on the idea. And then… I never do. If I could do as they did Back in The Day, and send my pieces of embroidery off to the cabinet maker to have him construct a box around it, I suppose the whole idea would be more feasible. Or if someone could come up with a design or a plan for the actual box and I could do the rest, maybe that would work. Construction has never quite been my forte, and getting my head around the construction of a casket with doors and drawers and trays inside it – well. The thought results in immediate inactivity.

As I was squizzing about online the other day, though, I came across a tutorial for an embroidered box. It isn’t quite the same as the 16th century caskets, but I was thinking it might be a good start for any other embroidered box people out there who have a secret desire to make their own embroidered casket – replete with drawers, removable trays, cubby holes, etc…. This one is just a simple box – four sides and a lid. A good starting place for embroidered box construction, methinks.

Making an Embroidered Box from the V&!  Museum

This lesson for making an embroidered box can be found on the V&A; website. The lesson is meant to supplement a textile course with museum research, so it’s kind of a neat idea, if you happen to live in the vicinity of a museum with a decent textile display. If you don’t, though, and if you just want the nitty-gritty of the construction process, take a look at the PDF that explains how the box goes together.

If you’d like to browse the collections at the V&A; for embroidered boxes, you’ll want to visit their search page, and type in “Embroidered Caskets” or something to that effect.

What will amaze you is reading the descriptions of some of these embroidered boxes. The box featured in the screen shot above is described thus:

The panels of the casket would have been worked by a young girl, of about the age of 11 or 12, as the culmination of her needlework education, which would have begun with samplers, and the decoration of small objects like pin cushions. She would embroider a series of small panels drawn or printed with pictorial scenes, which would then be sent to a cabinet maker to be made up into a casket, the edges bound with braid. The caskets were fitted with a variety of drawers and compartments, suitable for keeping jewellery, writing equipment and letters, needlework tools, tiny toys or keepsakes. They often had one or two secret drawers, for their young owners’ most precious or private possessions; this casket has five, concealed with considerable ingenuity.

If I had worked one of these at age 11 or 12, at the culmination of my needlework education, maybe I’d have this longing to make one out of my system by now!

Enjoy the links, and have a terrific (!) Monday!


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(21) Comments

  1. Mary,
    I'm nuts about those caskets too. Check out Vicki Clayton's site- hand-dyedfibers.com. She's got a casket for sale – it's expensive and I fell for it. Now I just have to figure out what to put on the panels.

  2. Oh Mary, now you've touched on two subjects that are near & dear to me! What you didn't mention was that many of these caskets were done in raised embroidery (now known as stumpwork) which is my very most favorite type of embroidery. I'm working on a City & Guilds class right now and I'm hoping that at the end of this level I'll have my own wonderful stumpwork sampler…and who knows, maybe I'll be able to make it into a box! There's a wonderful book titled Embroidered Boxes by Jane Lemon that has very good construction instructions, including ones on adding trays and drawers and stuff like that. It would definitely take a lot of work but if you're putting so much effort into the embroidery, it would be worth it.


  3. Mary, how can anyone help but share your desire? To have a special place to keep one's secret treasures, decorated with exquisite examples of one's skill and taste….

    Years ago, a cousin made me a simple wooden box with hinges, and I have used it ever since to hold my hoard of needlework stuff — but I have a question: how did the makers of these wonderful boxes get around the problem of tannic acid?

    You see, everything in my wooden casket is contained in plastic (yes, I know, not a perfect solution either!). I'd love to cover the box to make it even more wonderful and special, but the wood is certainly not archival. I can see (someone else) constructing a box out of acid-neutral bookboard, then trusting their precious embroideries to survive the ages (as long as the bookboard isn't banged up too much), but I'd be frightened to put so much work into a project that would be doomed by its own construction.

    Does anyone know if quilting the fabric is the key (as in, does the quilted batting provide an extra layer of protection)? Would using wool as wadding add protection if the wool still contained lanolin (aka a pre-scoured batt)?

    So many questions… so many UFOs, but still….

    It would be a glorious place to keep my stash!

    Karen from Arcadia

  4. I'm in the process of making a cross-stitch 'treasure box" from Chatelaine designs. It's a fun project.
    Karen- two or three good coats of marine varnish on the box should protect your fibers from wood tannins.
    Mary- There are still cabinetmakers out there who will do small projects like this to order. It's not inexpensive, but the results can be fantastic. I can recommend this guy: http://www.threegryphons.com although he's often booked up with large projects.

  5. I was going to point you in the direction of Vikki Clayton's latest addition, but I see someone already has. Being in Australia it is out of my reach due to shipping costs not to mention the cost of the casket but it is beautifully designed. I too would love to construct one of these.. one day but it is on a very long list of challenging projects I hope to get to 'one day'

  6. A very good book for making fabric covered boxes is http://www.amazon.com/Making-Hand-Sewn-Boxes-Techniques-Projects/dp/1861080859/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&s;=books&qid;=1263868542&sr;=1-6

    It uses cardstock of varying weights and fabric. Shows a variety of decorating textile art, usually for the tops of the box only. It also shows in detail, the construction method for a great many different boxes from simple to complex including lids, inserts and drawers and even an etui.

    Perhaps you might like to check it out Mary if you are going to make a box.

  7. Thanks to all of you readers for posting all the information on embroidered caskets (and boxes). I love them too and would like to do one. There are always so many things I want to do that I'll never run out of ideas…I'll be gone before all the ideas are gone. 😉

  8. I couldn't believe it when I saw what you had written. It is a secret dream of mine to make a box but I've never had the courage. I'd love it if you had a go so that all us closet casket lovers could follow!

  9. Does anyone have any suggestions for patterns for some of these gorgeous embroidered panels? I would love to do some of the "scenes" but I've no idea how to draw that out. What would be a good book or site containing those sorts of patterns?

    I would love to make one of these. I'm thinking of going out and buying a plain little jewelry box from the thrift store and seeing what I can come up with 🙂

  10. Thought I'd comment again quickly… I found a cigar box by chance today that is quite simply laid out. I also found some silk (not sure if I'll end up using that or muslin in the end) and will follow variations of several instructions that I've found online. I am working out two sets of designs right now, one is a seasonal motif, and another is scenes from Narnia, which will probably win out 😉

    Thanks for this great idea and I will show you once I'm done with mine. Hopefully it won't take too long 🙂

  11. Thanks for all the comments, resources, and links! I'm actually going somewhere with this, but probably not very quickly.

    I love the wooden caskets that are available – but whoa! They're beyond my budget. As far as boxes go, I'll probably start a lot more simply, and with less of an investment. Maybe some day, I'll work up to a full-fledged casket. The one drawback to the wooden ones I've seen online – I don't like the drawer layout on the inside. I'd like to see a couple smaller drawers in there, too. But then I suppose that would increase the expense….

    MommaBlogger, I can't wait to see what you come up with!

  12. Those caskets are oh so tempting, but they are way out of the price range of most people I know. That would make an awesome addition for a hope chest though.

    I am hoping to photograph all the steps, and I'll let you know once I'm done.

    I do have a question though, I bought a silk for the base fabric, but I only have cotton floss for embroidery thread. Would it be better to stick with silk threads, or will cotton be fine? Otherwise I'd want to switch to muslin or broadcloth in place of the silk.

  13. Hi Mary,
    I would love to complete a casket and was also taken with the one on Vikki Clayton's website However prior to making such a significant investment I was hoping that someone may be able to feedback on the quality of the product. It is so difficult to tell from a photo!!!

  14. Hi, Jo – It's REALLY hard to tell from the photos. If the box is what I would call "beautifully finished," it doesn't really come across well in the photos. I know the wood is supposed to be slightly distressed to give that aged look, but the stain and varnish in the photos kind of throws me off. I have heard, though, that people have purchased them and like them. I read- I can't remember where? maybe on needleprint? – a comment from a woman who has three of them! If she has three of them, she must like them….

    Well, if I ever hear anything in depth about that, I'll be sure to share the information with you!


  15. Hi Mary,
    Thanks so much for the feedback. Heavens- three caskets sounds like a lifetime of stitching!!! The slightly distressed look worries me slightly- think that I would prefer to distress it myself. May look into having someone making me a neat, precise version!!
    Kind regards,

  16. Hello Mary,
    Thank you for your articles on embroidered caskets, it’s amazing to think young girls made these beautiful works of art. I know what you mean about always wanting to make one. I found Thistle Threads online, they are American and actually run a course online to make the whole thing and you can choose which type of casket you want. Just google the company, sorry I can’t provide a link. It’s interesting to go to their site and have a browse around. I warn you though that it’s very expensive but maybe you can just buy the casket and do the rest by yourself, you’re certainly talented enough. Hope this helps. Kind regards Mandy Currie

    1. Hi, Mandy! Thanks for your comment! I actually advertise for Thistle Threads here on Needle ‘n Thread – you’ll see their ad in the right column on the website! 🙂

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