If you’ve ever been to a thrift store (sometimes referred to as an “op shop”), you’re probably familiar with the fate of many a piece of retro needlework.
What do I mean by retro?
Well, let’s look at some terminology.
When describing things from the past, we use the words “antique” and “vintage” pretty often, but not always correctly.
Antique is clear enough – anything antique is generally accepted to be anything 100 years or older.
Vintage, however, is not so clear. The term vintage was hijacked from the wine industry. With wine, the year it’s produced is the vintage. The vintage doesn’t necessarily imply that there’s any quality involved or anything like that. It’s just a statement of the season the particular wine was produced. So you can have a vintage 2015 wine right now, and it obviously wouldn’t be old, but it could be a very good quality wine. Or it could be rather… meh. It’s goodness has nothing to do with the term “vintage.”
But the way we commonly use vintage hints at a somewhat distant past. A vintage car, vintage jewelry, a vintage stove for the kitchen. And it also carries a whiff of quality with it – although something vintage doesn’t really have to be high quality. It just has some sort of quality to it that makes it appealing to those who like that particular style.
Generally, vintage is accepted to mean something around 50 years or older, but not quite old enough to be an antique. There are, though, many who use the term a little more loosely, and contend that 20 years is sufficient to make an item vintage.
Retro is a different time-related term. It simply means something that is imitative of the relatively recent past. Take, for example, styles from the ’80’s or ’90’s. If you made yourself a dress based on a pattern from the ’80’s that sports typical features of ’80’s dressy clothing – big collar, puffed sleeves, bow (I’m starting to shudder) and hefty shoulder pads – then the dress would be considered “retro ’80’s.”
The piece of crewel embroidery I’m showing you here belongs more to the category of “retro,” even though it’s not imitative, since it’s from the early ’80’s, not just imitating the early ’80’s.
But if you decorated your kitchen in an early ’80’s theme and hung this on the wall, you’d definitely have a “retro” kitchen.
In the 1980’s here in the US, the dominant form of popular needlework was counted cross stitch. It was All the Rage.
But crewel work, hanging over from the ’70’s when it was much more popular, still had a foot hold, especially at the beginning of the ’80’s. Crewel kits, like the Old Country Mill shown here, were fairly easily available at needlework shops and the larger fabric and craft stores that were springing up all over the country.
This particular kit, designed by Barbara and Randy Jennings and sold around 1982 as a Sunset Stitchery Kit, makes use of a variety of surface embroidery stitches – satin stitch, long and short stitch, bullion stitch, stem stitch, French knots, split stitch, chain stitch.
The design is printed on what feels like a very heavy cotton, probably to further enhance the suggestion of a grain sack.
Some areas of the design (for example, behind the lettering on the banner) are solidly colored and not meant to be stitched.
While the style of the piece is definitely early ’80’s, there’s still a timelessness about it, but that timelessness is not reflected in the design, and not necessarily in the color scheme, either. Those things can always be dated.
But the thing about embroidery – surface embroidery, crewel embroidery, and the like – is that it is timeless, despite design styles and color schemes, thanks to the common aspects that join subsequent eras of needlework. Every era of needlework history has built upon the era before, and they all have some things in common – like the threads (in this case, the wool), the stitches, the techniques.
Styles change. Color preferences change. And even techniques change somewhat. But they all build on what’s come before.
And that’s why I thought this piece was interesting. Sure, it’s not really my style. But I do recognize in it some good aspects of design, color placement, thread and stitch choice.
The history of this particular piece is vague, which is not surprising. As is often the case with this type of needlework, it ended up in a thrift store and someone bought it for the frame. My friend thought I might be interested in the contents of the frame.
What will I do with it? I’m going to wash it. I’ve wanted to test a few methods of washing wool embroidery, and this piece will provide me with a good way to do that.
Then I’m going to pass it on to someone I know who likes this particular “retro” style.
What about you? Have you ever come across a particularly outdated piece of needlework at a thrift store or op shop, and rescued it? What would you do with a piece like this, which is so obviously time-stamped? Is it something you’d keep? What if You had stitched this back in the ’80’s, and you were overhauling your home and scaling down? What would you do with it? Would you keep it, sell it, donate it?
I’m always interested in hearing what folks do with old embroidery like this, or what you’d do if you came across it somewhere. Chime in the conversation below, and let’s chat about it!
If you like this particular kit, search for “Old Country Mill Crewel Embroidery Kit” on eBay. There are a few on there.