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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Offspring of Berlin Wool Work


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Originating in Germany in the early 1800’s, Berlin wool work spread to England and then to America by the mid-1800’s as a popular form of needlework. It was among the first amateur needlework techniques to become all the rage for the middle class women in Victorian England.

Relying on “point paper” (graph paper) charts made more accessible thanks to innovations in colored printing, and using a soft, thick wool that took dye well (hence, it was available in many colors), Berlin work relied primarily on tent stitch to fill the needleworker’s canvas. Floral designs were popular, and often abundantly lavish – abundant lavishness in decor being something the Victorians managed quite often.

Berlin work began its demise with the advent of the Arts & Crafts Movement, which moved needlework in totally a different direction.

Berlin wool work is the direct predecessor of today’s canvas work and counted cross stitch.

Berlin Wool Work Firescreen

This piece of needlepoint is not necessarily “Berlin wool work” proper (from the 19th century), but it has the same look. It’s not new, but I have no idea how old it is. I need to explore it further to figure it out.

Black backgrounds in Berlin work became popular in the mid-1800’s, and they’re still popular on many needlepoint canvas designs today.

Berlin Wool Work Firescreen

The whole needlepoint piece is approximately 27.5″ wide and 28.5″ high. The black stitches extend 5.5″ out on each side, 4.5″ up from the top of the design area, and 3.5″ at the base of the design area, so it isn’t framed exactly in the center.

With about 11 stitches to the inch, the whole piece sports about 95,000 stitches.

Berlin Wool Work Firescreen

Needless to say, someone, somewhere, at some point in time, put a lot of time and effort into tent-stitching this canvas.

So how did I come by it? Well, I found it on Craig’s List, under antiques. But I didn’t buy it for the needlepoint, or “tapestry” (as it was listed). I bought it – at a steal, for just over $100 – for the “frame” surrounding it. It was my Christmas present to me, and quite worth it.

I haven’t taken any photos yet that quite do justice to the “frame.” This piece deserves a better setting than my workroom, so once I set it up in a better location, I’ll show you the whole thing!

In the meantime, can you guess what type of “frame” this is in? It’s not a regular frame-frame. It’s more like a piece of furniture, in a way. I’ve been looking for one of these for a Very Long Time, but they aren’t widely made in the US anymore, and when you do find them in solid wood, suitable for this type of needlework display, they are prohibitively expensive and not as decorative or attractive as this particular one. Any guesses?

I’ll reveal all next week, I promise! And then we can bat around some ideas.

In the meantime, if you have an ideas, input, suggestions, comments, or what-have-you, about the needlepoint – or if you can guess what it is displayed on – feel free to leave a comment below!

See you tomorrow!


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(67) Comments

  1. Hmm, sounds like it might be a firescreen,from the size and shape. My father has one made by one of my great aunts – embroidered with a rose in silk on black silk (long-and-short embroidery, not woolwork) which is still used in front of the fireplace when there’s no fire in the hearth. Not a very attractive frame on ours, but it’s sturdy. Nearby is the coal box, carved with a dragon on the lid in low relief, made by the same great aunt around 1900.

  2. Hi Mary, now you have me wondering. Could it be a fireplace screen. No, I think that’s too easy. I’ll have to keep thinking about it. Mmmmmmmmm

  3. Perhaps your Berlin work is in a firescreen? I have lots of Berlin woolwork patterns from my mother-in-law who was Dutch. Very elaborate and I really do like them. I have stitched a couple of pillows using the designs but always stitch a complete cross as tent stitch distorts the shape needed for a nice square pillow.

  4. A fire screen sounds most logical but a sewing table with a screen would be really cool, oh now I am curious, and I love interesting pieces that can be recreated in miniature scale. also just love that piece of embroidery, I would love to stitch it on fine gauze for my dollhouse.

  5. I’d guess a fire screen too – given the shape. The only other thing I know this sort of thing was used in was chairs, but it looks far too flat to be part of a chair! đŸ™‚

  6. I agree, a firescreen seems the most logical for the size and style of the piece. I had one with apiece of Jacobean embroidery in it which was done by my mother just before WW2. Unfortunately it got badly infested by wood worm, so I still have the needlework, but the firescreen frame had to go!

  7. Dear Mary

    As everyone else has said it’s sounds like a firescreen they were very popular in the Victorian period. Lovely needlework can’t wait to see what it actually is.

    Regards Anita Simmance

  8. I have a number of pieces done by my great-great aunt who spent a lot of time in a wheel chair due to arthritis. They are over 100 years old. I was told that they are Berlin work. Besides sentimental value, are they valuable? How can I find out?

  9. Oh Mary –

    You have me on the edge of my seat. Originally I was imagining a lovely carved wood frame to frame needlework. Now I think you have discovered an old needlework treasure for doing needlework. Either way, I can’t wait to find out.

    And you have solved a mystery for me about the Berlin Needlework, which I have read about both in proper needlework books and various Victorian and Victoriana novels. I wondered if it was more complex than the tent stitch of so much needlepoint/canvaswork because I have seen examples called Berlin Work that were quite complex.

    I can’t wait to see the frame and as always thanks for the fabulous site and blog.

  10. I also think that it is a firescreen since it looks very similar to the size and shape of one I have embroidered by my grandmother in crewel work.

  11. I would say a firescreen too. You can still buy them but they do cost the earth. I made one in miniature years ago that was stitched on silk gauze.

  12. Is it a firescreen? I, too, have been looking for years for a suitable one on which to display some of my canvas work.
    By firescreen, I do not mean that which covers the opening of the fireplace, but a free standing decorative screen that stands beside the hearth and is used to display stitching.

  13. Sounds like we are all thinking alike. I can so easily picture this as a fire screen…. One of those “bucket projects” that just has to come together to be right.

  14. I’ve seen a lot of chair seats with ‘preworked’ designs where you fill in the background – boring!!! But if this is a wood piece, it isn’t a fire screen. I guess a chair.

  15. Hi Mary, my guess is that, given the size and the fact that it is not “a frame, frame”, it is a fire screen.
    I enjoy immensely your daily newsletter, and it is the very first thing I read. Thanks!

  16. I am thinking that the frame of the Berlin work piece is a fireplace screen. I am only guess that because I am seeking one myself. I think it is a wonderful way to display a piece of my handwork. Looking forward to the “reveal”.
    Janice Miller

  17. is tent stitch what i would think of as a half cross stitch?

    i checked, but coudln’t find an example in the tips & techniques section

  18. My “guess” is a piano bench!

    Why? (Well, because everybody else already guessed a “real” firescreen, which was what I was going to guess…. So I changed it!!!)

    But also because I had an aunt, my Aunt Rae, who lived in Oklahoma City, who stitched in needlepoint a large canvas which looked very much like this picture, except for the size and background. Instead of black, it was mauve pink, I think because it matched her decor. This would have been in the 1950s, possibly 1960s.

    What happened to it?

    The canvas was removed when the piano and bench went to my sister in the late 1990s, ostensibly to “clean” it. (Why didn’t she take it to the dry cleaners, as it was stitched in Persian wools.)

    No, no, no, she dunked it in water! Then sent it to me to “fix,” and of course, there was no fixing it, it was already “done.”

    The pink dye washed out of it and it was gone!

    So enjoy the tale …. if nothing else!!!

    I truly have not ever seen a real firescreen — just the stitcher’s variety that stands on a pedestal.

    Lynn Lind
    New Mexico

    1. Lynn, my grandmother was doing needlepoint in the 1950s and adamantly declared the ground color was “dusty rose”. Trendy at the time.

    2. Now that I’ve had all day to think about it, I think it was my cousin who wanted it because she could remember how long it took her mother to stitch it, and I think one of my sister’s pets had somehow “soiled” it and she had removed it. When she learned it was wanted back, she freaked out and threw it in the washing machine! (I’m laughing now…) As stitchers, we’re always concerned about whether something has colorfast threads or not… Back then? Not! They have all passed on now, including my sister, so I think all’s forgiven, but it is a stitching tale…

  19. I’m guessing a firescreen, too. Though I thought them more a colonial-era device than a Victorian one. But, hey, another surface to cover! how could a Victorian resist? (Why dare we be so scornful?)

  20. Mary, as Victoria England was very grand and needlepoint was a way of Ladies passing their time, most were done in a timber frame that were displayed in their Parlour, so I am guessing that the frame you bought was a very elegant and ornate frame on a stand.
    (I have included a photo on a return email to you)

  21. My first thought was a fire screen! Looks like everyone agrees!!
    The only other thought is that it is a cabinet with an embroidered panel in the door or in the centre piece but you would have needed to pay more than $100 for that. Looking forward to the revelation.

  22. It is very nice. I think it might be a stool cover like for a vanity. I have a little footstool covered with a hand woven tapestry and it reminds me of that.

  23. I have two pieces of Berlin Work done by my grandmother. One with the typical black background is on a gout stool – (A wonderful footrest/rocker combo which should be revived by the furniture industry). The second which she did with a white background is in a frame stand as a fireplace screen. ( for summer use only!)

  24. Beautiful design. Florals are my weakness and this one is gorgeous. I would love to duplicate the design from a high resolution picture maybe? Always enjoy your posts and will be my inspiration for stitching during the long, cold, canadian winter coming. Thank you

  25. Perhaps for a vanity stool or a curved footrest…..or a tea tray? But since it has an obvious up/down orientation……..fireplace screen……?

  26. I am guessing the needlework was displayed in a display table rather than a picture frame hung on a wall. This is a very pretty piece. I am finishing the black background on a needlepoint project my cousin was working on. Her sister gave this to me to complete after her sister died a few years ago. It is a priviledge to work on this and I think of Josephine and our growing up years.

  27. Mary, you’re being coy, it must be something obscure like an Eastlake Corner Chair or arched stool—don’t see them everyday. Or an elaborate folding chair with a sling-like needlepoint seat.

  28. Do not have any idea what this piece is mounted on or in but I love the beautiful piece and I would love to have a pattern for it.
    I am going to be watching for further pictures of this next week.

  29. I am waiting to be registered to the website but I want to ask a question which may not be printed. Hope so. I am considering doing some Japanese embroidery in 2013.Is there anything relevant on your website Mary? I look at your website every day and have learned so much. I teach embroidery myself and have referred all my 20 students to your site also.

    1. Thanks, Jean! I actually don’t cover much Japanese embroidery on my website. I’ve used a lot of Japanese embroidery supplies over the years (silk, needles, etc.) but I’ve never actually done “real” Japanese embroidery under the training of a master. Threads Across the Web is a blog I follow faithfully – Carol-Anne covers quite a bit of Japanese embroidery. You might want to check out her work. Here’s a link to her site: http://threadsacrosstheweb.blogspot.com You’ll find some gorgeous examples on there! ~MC

  30. Mary, I forgot to thank you for this article – I never get enough of the history of needlework. Berlin work is so beautiful and I say this even as a fan of Arts & Crafts! Could this piece be considered petit point?

  31. Hi again Mary,
    I did not want to look at the comments before writing mine – not to be influenced. I see that saying a firescreen was not very original.

    My second guess is that it is a foot stool. Anywhere close?

    Holding my breath.

  32. Este es un trabajo maravilloso que nunca deja de ser actual, me gusta mucho y es increible todo lo que se puede hacer,gracias.

  33. There are really two types of fireplace screens. One was used in the summer as a fig leaf to cover the fireplace opening. The other was a protective item that could be placed between someone sitting close to the fire and the fire, in order to diminish “near side broil” – becoming over-warm in the flame’s direct heat. They tend to be two different shapes, with the summer screen being larger to cover the open hearth. The protective screens were usually smaller, more likely to be “portrait” rather than “landscape” in orientation. Some were mounted on adjustable stands so that their angle and height could be positioned.

    My vote for this piece however is for bench seat, possibly for a piano or bench seat; or for the top of an ottoman.

    BTW – the all time best lecture title was one presented the year before last at the Winterthur Needlework Conference. It was on Berlin Woolwork – “The Blood of Murdered Time.” Taken from a contemporary article criticizing the fad at its height.


  34. would you post a picture of the back of this piece? (British and most Europeans refer to needlepoint as tapestry). Elizabeth Bradley brought back the “Victorian cross stitch” for her designs and that seems to be fairly common technique in other countries. I really enjoy starting my days with you. Donna

    1. Hi, Donna – I will post a photo of the back, I’m sure, once I’ve removed it from the frame. I haven’t tackled how to take the frame apart yet, but it looks pretty simple. It’s a wood back that is “locked” into place under removable molding. I’ll have the camera on hand when I take it out…. MC

  35. I have a very very similar patterned berlin woolwork which came from one of my best friend’s grandmothers house near MĂ¼nster, Germany. The coloring and floral pattern seems to be the same style. She had no desire for this (approximately 3 x 5ft) wall hanging and gave it to me when I was living in Germany. I love mine, it also has a prince and princess on a horse, as well as a phrase in French. Do you know where I can find out more information about this and possibly date it?

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