Mary Corbet

writer and founder


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

Contact Mary

Connect with Mary



2024 (50) 2023 (125) 2022 (136) 2021 (130) 2020 (132) 2019 (147) 2018 (146) 2017 (169) 2016 (147) 2015 (246) 2014 (294) 2013 (294) 2012 (305) 2011 (306) 2010 (316) 2009 (367) 2008 (352) 2007 (225) 2006 (139)

10 Terrific Old Needlework Books to Add to Your Embroidery Library


Amazon Books

Old hand embroidery and needlework books mesmerize me.

Vintage embroidery books appeal to me more than new embroidery books do. I love reading old needlework books – sometimes, because they crack me up, and sometimes, because they make me think.

There is such a pleasure in thumbing through old books on hand embroidery – from all the sensual appeal of the book (the feel, the smell, the tentative, brittle movement of the pages) – that can’t be had from perusing a digital copy of the same book.

10 Old Needlework Books, free online

But we can’t all collect every old book out there, and so it is with Huge Gratitude that we can turn instead to those online collections that make the reading of old needlework books possible for most of us.

Today, to set you up for a weekend of reading pleasure, I’d like to point out 10 fantastic old needlework books that I love, that you can download for free and add to your embroidery library. Each has a particular value to it, and I hope you end up liking them as much as I do!

The Library of Work & Play: Needlecraft

1. The Library of Work and Play: Needlecraft by Effie Archer Archer is available in several downloadable formats on Project Gutenberg.

What’s it got? Plenty of stitch instructions (with drawn diagrams) and some fabulous old illustrations!

English Embroidered Bookbindings

2. English Embroidered Bookbindings by Cyril James H. Davenport, also available on Project Gutenberg.

What’s it got? Discussion on embroidered books, their history, and the methods of making them, along with plates featuring examples of embroidered book covers from various eras, with descriptions of the embroidery.

Handbook of Embroidery

3. The Handbook of Embroidery by L. Higgin, found in several formats on Project Gutenberg.

What’s it got? Discussion of the materials used in “modern” embroidery (1880) with some really good descriptive explanations of different types of silks and metal threads; discussion of ground fabrics used for embroidery; stitch instructions (with drawn diagrams); and colored plates with various designs for hand embroidery.

Art in Needlework: A Book about Embroidery

4. Art in Needlework: A Book about Embroidery by Lewis F. Day and Mary Buckle, available on Internet Archive.

What’s it got? Discussion of the techniques used in all different types of hand embroidery; some stitch instruction in the form of small samplers; plenty of black & white plates, with specifics about embroidery techniques used in them. This book is a classic.

Dictionary of Needlework

5. Dictionary of Needlework: an encyclopaedia of artistic, plain, and fancy needlework dealing fully with the details of all the stitches employed, the method of working, the materials used, the meaning of technical terms, and, where necessary, tracing the origin and history of the various works described.

No, really. That is the title! The book is by Sophia Frances Anne Caulfeild, published in 1882. It’s a fantastic book! It’s actually divided into six volumes, each of which is excellent:

Dictionary of Needlework, Volume 1
Dictionary of Needlework, Volume 2
Dictionary of Needlework, Volume 3
Dictionary of Needlework, Volume 4
Dictionary of Needlework, Volume 5
Dictionary of Needlework, Volume 6

You can also download the whole Dictionary of Needlework by Caulfield in one volume, here.

Dictionary of Needlework

6. Embroidery Motifs, First Series by Therese de Dillmont, available at the Online Digital Archive of Weaving and Related Topics. The book is available in two parts, as PDFs to download.

What’s it got? Great embroidery motifs, worked in various techniques, shown in color, and clear embroidery patterns for all the motifs.

Here are the PDFs:

Embroidery Motifs, First Series, part 1
Embroidery Motifs, First Series, part 2

7. Ricami Norvegesi (Norwegian Embroidery) – PDF – by Therese de Dillmont, also available at the Online Digital Archive.

What’s it got? Written in Italian, this book from the DMC Library is full of instructional images for Hardanger embroidery.

Dictionary of Needlework

8. Moderne Stickerei-Vorlagen, Secession, Jugend-Styl (Embroidery Patterns, Modern Style) available through the Antique Pattern Library.

What’s it got? Cross stitch patterns for alphabets and monograms, plus art nouveau motifs.

Dictionary of Needlework

9. Motif Religieux also from Antique Pattern Library.

What is it? It’s a single sheet of religious designs for hand embroidery.

Dictionary of Needlework

10. Broderies Pour Robes – also from Antique Pattern Library.

What’s it got? A really fabulous collection of hand embroidery patterns for dresses of the earlier 1900’s.

As the description states, it’s “very flapper.” The designs are great – they’d look terrific on household goods, too, and could definitely be modified for other embroidery projects.

Searching Some Needlework Book Collections

When searching collections like Antique Pattern Library or the Online Digital Archive for Weaving, etc., a handy way to go about searching is to hold Control + F or Command + F on your keyboard while on the main catalog page. This will bring up the “Find” feature in your browser, and you can search by keyword through the titles and descriptions in the catalogs.

Supporting the Work of Digital Preservation

You might be interested in supporting the preservation efforts of some of these collections.

For example, Antique Pattern Library is a non-profit organization that relies on donations to help them carry out their work of digital preservation of old needlework books and magazines. Definitely worth supporting if you can.

Hope this gives you some pleasurable reading for your leisure time this weekend! Hope you enjoy the books as much as I do!

Looking for inspiration & information on hand embroidery?

There are all kinds of reasons to sign up for the Needle ‘n Thread daily newsletter! Check them out and sign up today!


Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


(21) Comments

  1. Good Morning, Mrs. Corbet! I really wish I could dive into this treasure trove, unfortunately, I’m the old fashioned type who hates tablets! And I also have the WORST PC I have ever owned, that doesn’t like downloading anything at all! 🙁

    I guess the little Hummer isn’t ready to show off his tail yet.

  2. Thank you for putting these up! I was just going to skim through the “Broderies pour Robes” and I found myself wanting to find a way to use nearly every design! I love how they modeled every design on a fashion plate, and I never though that a pictorial representation of a crochet outfit could work like that!

  3. Hi Mary, thank you for the list of books. I actually own the Caulfeild 2-volume set titled Encyclopedia of Victorian Needlework A-L and M-Z published by Dover and it is exactly the same as the dictionaries.
    The link to Broderies pour Robes would not open. Is it in the Antique Pattern Library? I plan to copy the dresses and sell them!

    1. Yes, I don’t know why that PDF won’t open without a password for some. I opened it fine in Chrome on my Mac, but on my iPad, it won’t open without a PW. I notice that’s the case with quite a few of the titles at APL. You might try it on your computer, using a different browser, like Chrome. Otherwise, try updating your Adobe reader – that might do it.

  4. Oooohhh lovely! Thank you for finding these. I’ve gone to Project Guttenberg and Internet Archive, and somehow don’t usually seem to find these gems.

  5. Some of these old books really are treasures. I have some of my grandmother’s Australian books from the 1920s – they were my introduction to the delight of poring over illustrations and being tempted to try learning different needle arts.

  6. Oh, wonderful, thank you! I love to read old books on embroidery, weaving, knitting, sewing… really anything about textiles and fibers! You can see pictures of old clothes or watch movies with authentic costumes, but you can´t really get a feeling for it like that. This is like a timetravel (if the book is good *g*)

    Best wishes,

  7. Dear Mary,
    You’ve done it again. You have provided us with a plethora of needleart entertainment. You are amazing!
    I fail to understand how anyone could get bored with your site.
    Have a blessed weekend. Roz

  8. Dear Mary,
    What a fabulous treat! I love old books too. Especially the look and the quality workmanship of the designs and patterns they contain. There’s a reverence about them of times past. Thank you!

    1. Glad you like them, Louisa Mae! I’m an old book fan, too – I have to restrain myself from looking for original copies of these old needlework treasures! It can be an expensive habit!

  9. What a gift! Thank you for finding these gems. I use Antique Pattern Library but never noticed Broderies pour robes, which has just fueled a good half hour of viewing and daydreaming. It’s fun to imagine so many women having the level of skill necessary to execute these designs (I can imagine myself starting on one of them in the ’20s and finishing up sometime in the Depression!). I wonder if these were used primarily by women making their own clothes or by dressmakers/petits mains?

  10. What a wonderful resource! I’ve downloaded 9 last night before I had to stop and plan to download the next now.
    I had seen references to the Directory of Needlework but I now have my own copy. With good intentions I planned to download everything and look later but Art in Needlework ensnared me.

    Thank you for your pointers to excellent sites and your considered judgement as to why they might be interesting.

  11. Thank you for these Mary. I have downloaded (uploaded?) all of them for future leisurely reading. The only one I had trouble with was the one-page ecclesiastical designs which doesn’t much concern me as I am unlikely to use them. The rest worked like a dream.

    Like others, I love these old books, as much for the history as for the designs.

  12. Draga Meri,
    Veoma me raduje ovaj tvoj sajt sa lepim primerima veza na platnu,kako se i ja bavim vezom radujem se nekim primerima.Ja radim ovde u Srbiji jednu lepu tehniku Srednjevekovnog veza na platnu sa temom Fresaka i Ikona kao slika u ramu.
    Voleo bi da uspostavimo kontakt i saradnju.
    Pozdrav od Stevan

    1. Hello, Stevan – Thank you for your comment! I am glad you enjoy Needle ‘n Thread. I would like to see some of your icon work if you can send photos. You can reply directly to the email you receive. -MC

  13. A lovely collection and beautifully described. I mostly do machine embroidery, but get a lot of inspiration and ideas from old book. Thanks for sharing.

More Comments