This book review has been a Long Time Coming! I’ve had the book for a while – sent to me by a friend – and while my plan was ever to review it for you all, I felt I couldn’t do a review justice by a cursory reading of the book. Finally, I have read it from cover to cover, and I feel (somewhat) confident in writing a review.
It’s a lot easier to write a review of a technique book. The RSN Handbook of Embroidery might sound like a technique book (and there is certainly technique in it), but the compelling part of the book is not the technique.
The RSN Handbook of Embroidery (with an introductory essay by Lynn Hulse) is a piece of history, and it tells the story of a unique part of great institution’s history. The book is divided in two – the second half (the fawn color pages in the photo above) is the actual Handbook of Embroidery – a facsimile edition of the 1880 publication of the Royal School of Embroidery’s handbook. The first half of the book (the lighter colored pages in the photo) is the introductory essay by Dr. Lynn Hulse.
But it’s not just any “essay.” It’s a thoroughly researched history of the handbook and the school’s attempt to, in a sense, “codify” needlework at a time in history when this hadn’t really been done widely before.
Today, we tend to take for granted all the instructional books that we have at our fingertips. If we don’t have them on our own shelves, we can pop down to the public library and borrow them for free, or we can hop on line and find many, many instructional works for embroidery available for nothing. But imagine a time in history when women were doing needlework from home – often as a means of support – and instructional materials were not really to be widely had (or very few were, anyway). The RSN set out to solve this dearth, and to make its mark in the marketing of embroidery instructional materials, by producing a handbook.
When you read this book, you will come to appreciate the influence that the handbook had on needlework. And for anyone who is interested in the history of needlework, I think this book must be read. Why? Because it gives in detail a behind-the-scenes view of one of the most important endeavors of the RSN, and in doing so, it exposes much of the needlework movement that preceded our era and guaranteed the survival of the needle arts.
So what’s in the book? We’ll go from the back, forwards.
The back half of the book begins with the handbook itself.
Inside the handbook, you’ll find the techniques practiced by the RSN in the 1880’s spelled out. There is good technique information in here, and for the historical needleworker, you won’t want to miss it. But keep in mind, this is not the same type of technique book that we see today. Pictures and diagrams are fewer, and text is more abundant.
But that’s not to say that useful diagrams are not there – you’ll find good diagrams of different techniques.
You’ll find magnificent pattern pages, some in color, some presented as line drawings…
… like Selwyn Image’s panels of the four goddesses. (This is a shot of Propserpina, which I adapted into my own version of the same panel – a project I hope to return to this year.)
So that’s the back half of the book.
The first half of the book, being scholarly research, is mostly text. You’ll find here a completely thorough, scholarly exposure of the history of the handbook, which further sheds light on the history of the Royal School of Needlework and the needlework movement during that time period.
At the end of Dr. Hulse’s research, though, you’ll find pictures – magnificent photos of works of the Royal School (many designed by prominent artists of the age). If you’re a picture-person, this section of the book is definitely for you! There are some fabulous works of art here, along with photos from the history of the school scattered throughout.
One of my favorite images in the book is the inside back cover, which displays a facsimile of one of the covers used on the handbook. I’m not sure why I like it so much – I think it’s striking.
So that’s the “new” RSN Handbook of Embroidery – a work of the past, brought to life through the deep and careful research of Lynn Hulse.
Incidentally, Dr. Hulse is presently preparing further research on items produced by the Royal School in its earlier years. She sent me a photo of the “signature” label that was usually affixed to embroideries prepared by the Royal School of Art Needlework (its former name) from 1875 onwards. Sometimes, the embroideries would have this whole label on it, or sometimes, just the monogram on the left side of the label. If you or anyone you know happens to be in possession of such a work with such a mark on it, will you let me know? It’s difficult to track these things down, but if enough people got the word out, who knows? We might be able to come up with something.
Well, if you love embroidery and you appreciate the fact that what we have today has been built upon what came before us, read this book!