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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Whitework & Needle Lace at the DMV


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What’s the DMV? you might understandably ask.

This could be one of those blog posts where the writer (yours truly), traveling to exotic and interesting places, visits an elaborately named museum affectionately known by its initials, where she discovers some worthwhile textile and embroidery-related acquisitions to share with you.

It could be…

But it’s not.

The DMV really is the Department of Motor Vehicles. That’s the place we Americans go to register our cars, pay our car taxes, and get our licenses, tags and stuff like that.

Rather unjustly immortalized in Disney’s Zootopia, the DMV might not be the Most Thrilling Place in the world to go – and you certainly wouldn’t choose it as a vacation destination – but it’s one of those Necessary Places. In fact, I never mind going.

In my rural county in Kansas, our DMV is located in the very rural county seat, which is one of those geographical oddities (being 40 minutes from everywhere), and known primarily these days for two things: the DMV and the county courthouse and jail.

While there is an Oregon Trail crossing close by, I have to say, there’s not much else to recommend the place. But it’s a pleasant drive – hilly (yes, even in Kansas), green, with beautiful vistas. Once arrived, the lines are never long (if there are any), and the folks who work there are friendly and efficient. I’m always in and out in minutes.

And on my way in and on my way out, I always pause to look at this:

Whitework Wedding Dress

Strangely enough, when you walk into the old 1800’s limestone building that houses this particular DMV office, the first thing you’re met with is a display case (the kind you might find in a school hallway) featuring this delicate whitework wedding gown.

Really. At the DMV!

The gown is fairly old (early 1900’s) and it’s adorned with a variety of whitework, needle lace, and other lace techniques. The fabric looks like a fine linen cambric, although it could be cotton.

Whitework Wedding Dress

The design of the dress is fairly simple, but the decoration of it is pretty elaborate, the whole front made up of embroidered panels and lace inserts.

Whitework Wedding Dress

Some of the panels look like strips of bobbin lace.

Whitework Wedding Dress

And some of the panels are strips of needle lace squares intermingled with satin stitched flowers.

I’m not sure about those flowers – they could be hand stitched, but they could also be machine stitched. From a distance, I couldn’t really tell.

I don’t know if the embroidery and needlework on the dress were hand done by the bride, whether they were bought pieces assembled into a dress, or whether the whole dress was bought complete. All I know is that it was the wedding gown of a prominent person in the town. There isn’t much of an explanation on the display.

But, what can you expect? It’s the DMV, after all – not a textile museum.

Whitework Wedding Dress

Along with the dress, there are a couple hankies pinned up on display. The one above features a very pretty embroidered tulle edge. It’s quite delicate and light and lovely. It’s my favorite piece in the whole display case.

Whitework Wedding Dress

The second handkerchief is adorned with an elaborate drawn thread area and a tatted edge.

I can’t help wondering if that edge is an afterthought. This handkerchief seems a little out of place, somehow, with the other handkerchief and the dress.

Whitework Wedding Dress

Tucked down in the bottom of the display case are the wedding shoes, satin and beaded. They would have been quite lovely new. Now, they are faded and discolored and the fabric is rotting.

Eyes Open

No matter where I go, my eyes are always seeking stitchy, thready things.

I’m forever pleasantly surprised when I find them even in the most mundane places – like the DMV. I love the fact that I can go register my car and get a needlework fix all at the same time!

The moral of the story: keep your eyes open! Even when you’re in the most ordinary places, you never know when you’ll see something extraordinary.

Have you ever run into an extraordinary textile in a place you least expected to? Feel free to tell us about it!

Enjoy your weekend!


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(37) Comments

  1. I enjoyed the article on the DMV. I had to go to a friend’s daughter’s wedding at an unknown church. When we got there we noticed the most beautiful needlepoint “kneelers” all round the communion area. The chairs by the altar also had beautiful pillows. The women of the parish get together once a month to work on these beautiful needlepoint items for the church. The work included 4 generations and has lasted almost 20 years. It was amazing. Not thinking I would see such work, I had no camera or phone to take pictures.

  2. At the DMV in New Jersey you would be waiting in line for an hour and a half. Reading your blog title, I was trying to picture how you were managing whitework and needle lace while standing in line! Thank you for a wonderful post.

  3. Mary, you have the best DMV in the whole wide world and I am very jealous. Mine is exactly like what shown in Zootopia. Thank goodness for things that can be taken care of at my local AAA facilities.

  4. As a hospice nurse, I have been in hundreds of homes, and sometimes the person I’m seeing or a family member is a stitcher or quilter. I love it when that happens and we can talk stitching for awhile. One woman showed me a vest she needlepointed for her husband. Another woman had a very large crewel work wall hanging–I wanted to sneak it off the wall and take it home it was so beautiful. I carry pictures of my work on my phone and sometimes share them or once in awhile I’ll take one of my pieces with me. It’s a great way to connect with my patients and their families.

    1. Dear Lois, yours is a worthwhile and very well appreciated profession. I an sure you are doing wonders with sharing your embroidery and commenting on those done by people you visit.

  5. This is my year for a new picture at the DMV. I too was wondering if you were working on a whitework project while there. While I know I won’t see any ‘thready, stitchy’ things there, the DMV is just a few stores away from our new jumbo Goodwill. A few weeks ago I found a lot of beautiful handworked hankies for 49 cents each. Some hand embroidered as well as some with tatted lace edging. I find all sorts of goodies there, so while I won’t see things at the DMV, I know I should be able to see some good stuff at the GW if there is any there that day. When I first visited when they were just opened I had trouble identifying where any craft items might be. Now I know exactly where to head (which means they will probably switch it around L

  6. I think that’s called (at least in the US) “Normandy lace” – it was quite an In Thing early in the 20th century, to gather up the bits of old lace from your grandmothers’ clothing/tablecloths and preserve them by making new patchwork lace out of them. If you have access to Piecework magazine, there’s an article with lovely examples in the July/August 2005 issue.

    1. Very interesting information. I have bought the Piecework issue you mention in its digital version. It has an article and a project. I have now purchased a book as well about Normandy Lace. Awaiting delivery. I have always wanted to do something with my pieces of lace, but had no idea it was called Normandy Lace.

  7. California is the worst state to go to the DMV. I hate that you have to renew near your birthday. Worst gift ever.

    The most surprising display of textiles I ever saw was in the Granary Building in Morgan Hill, California. We went to dinner and in the hall, on the way to the restrooms was an incredible display of Guatemalan Huipils, from various ages. They were fabulous! The story told of one woman’s journey and the dangers she faced and the textiles she collected. It was beautiful

  8. Love this post! I recently have become enthused about machine ‘heirloom’ creations. Hopefully I will put it into practice. Thanks for sharing this beautiful wedding dress story and pictures.

  9. Wow, in one of the few cities where one doesn’t need to even have a car (SF parking is terrible, public transit is practical), I would be at that DMV often to see that wonderful whitework wedding gown you have in Kansas with such delicious details. Across our bay, the Oakland Museum always had a special collection of those 1910 era gowns that were my favorite to see & never shown at the San Francisco museums. Thanks for your photos!

  10. I enjoyed your DMV tale! I volunteer at my local museum in the textile department. I am helping to update the computer files by photographing items in the collection. Also with identifying stitches in their embroidery collection. (Apparently I know more than I thought I did regarding stitches and technique)
    I have the pleasure of working along side a friend who is also a Lace maker. I have learned so much from her regarding whether it is hand or machine made and which type of lace it is. We have seen lace fans, collars, cuffs, flounces, lace from around the world and some very,very old lace. And best of all, We get to touch it! And if you knew me you’d know that that is the best part!
    Well, just want to say how much I enjoyed your posting about finding things in unusual places.

    Thank you so much for your website! So glad I found you!

  11. I found an example of yarnbombing on a bicycle rack while touring downtown Phinladelphia. In fact, my then-3 year old found it. So exciting!

  12. Would love to know the history of the gown and the shoes. Wish the shoes could be restored or at least duplicated . Oohhhhhhh, if that dress and shoe could talk . . .

  13. DMV is an odd place for whitework or needlework of any kind. But being an historical area, you might find almost anything tucked in here and there. Here in Oregon we see bits and pieces in restaurants. 🙂 Have lunch and look at ancient tractors. LOL I saw a beautiful white work infant’s gown in a bed and breakfast that we stayed at in Enterprise, OR.

    Is that dress missing something, like an under garment? It’s awfully gauzy to wear on its own. Even with undies. And I’d love to know what size the shoes are. They look very long.

  14. Decades ago in San Francisco I belonged to a dating service and went places I would not go now — with people I would not now give the time of day to. I found myself in a famous X-rated film — and I was going into raptures over the exquisite French bed linens! The close-ups on the pillowcases were what I wanted to see! Eventually I took myself over to Lacis in Berkeley. THAT is a place to drool, buy supplies, etc. Ashby BART Station. . . My South Lake Tahoe, CA DMV is efficient, near the water and Safeway. They’re trying.

  15. i have two finds. One is my gramdmother’s wedding dress. It does not look like a dress a bride would wear now or even turn of the last century. She was married in the late 1800’s. Her outfit was two pieces with the tinest waist and there is still lovely embroider and beads on material. Unfortunately the beading is not in good shape. I have it in acid free paper and a protective box. I treasure it.
    Second in an open house at Orange County Community College in Middletown, Ny, I came upon a beautiful crazy quilt. The administration building was once a home. We wondered around the main floor and on the wall by the staircase was hung a huge crazy quilt . Gorgeous embroidery. It was behind( I am assuming ) the correct type of glass. Actually that many years security was light. My son and I were able to meander upstairs , see a former billard lamp, vintage bathrooms and most rooms now offices. It was delightful.

  16. Such beautiful work on that wedding dress and handkerchiefs and shoes. What an unexpected place for them. Are they out in the open or behind protective glass?

  17. Hi Mary,
    I am just back from a hicking trip to Romania. My husband and I planned to arrive a few days before the group so that we could visit the Capital city Bucuresti and I was planning to visit the village museum, displaying traditional houses from the all the regions of the country, the Peasant museum where I intended to see embroidered traditional costume and maybe the Costume museum. In the first one unfortunately we could not come inside the rooms to see the embroidered ens woven pieces that were decorating the walls. And it was forbidden to take any photos..
    The Peasant’s Museum was closed for renovation and the Costume museum that still appeared in the 2016 version of my tourist guide no longer existed.
    But I was fortunate when at the end of our trip while we had an hour to spend in the old part of the city of Sibiu, to see an advertisement for a temporary exhibition on embroidery with plants and flowers themes. There were magnificent pieces, some dating back from the XIX century. I took lots of pictures that I intend to share with the members of th Lakeshore Creative Embroidery Guild.

  18. Dear Mary
    I thought of you so much recently and now seeing this particular article I have to share with you that I was in France very recently and went to Alencon, where I was staggered by the beauty of their needle lace. It has survived through several centuries and one was able to visit a museum and see it actually being made! Apparently it takes seven to eight years to train and seven hours just to make lace the size of a postage stamp! It was breathtaking. (All of which you probably knew). The other incident was a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where they are holding an exhibition of Opus Anglicanum, which you so, as usual, gave such knowledgeable information on. Wish you could be here to do a lecture tour. Sincere regards Margaret.

  19. I have not seen gorgeous white work in a DMV, but of endless fascination when I was little was a stuffed two headed calf in the window of a bank in the tiny village of Point Arena on the northern coast of California. Tiny little rural town, but they had an object of wonder, now long gone.

  20. Where to start? Ok, first: some gratitude.
    I just started doing needlework, and through Pinterest I found your blog almost immediately. Thank you so much for your wonderful lessons, tips, freebies, and…

    Let’s talk about the humor in this post! Serious chuckles!! 40 minutes from everywhere…ah, how many people are going to miss that oh-so-worthy movie reference? 🙂

    Finally… yep, you’re privileged: not only can you get through your DMV in minutes (ours offers a seemingly mandatory 1-hr wait), but you get to see THAT DRESS. Thanks for sharing!
    Happy stitching,

  21. Mary, pinch yourself! Are you sure you did not nod off at the DMV? Because I feel like you must be dreaming! The only needlework I ever saw at the DMV is my own, brought to pass the time with the long wait! Wow, I would not mind going to the DMV either if I had that dress to entertain me while I waited. Good thing you don’t have the crowds that we have, they would have wondered what you were up to taking pictures of an old dress…Thanks for the great story.

  22. LOVE the dress!! And I drooled over the hankie 🙂

    YES! Liberty Tool, in Liberty, Maine. I was there recently teaching and my host took me to a tool antique shop. She said, they mostly have tools, but you never know what you’ll find! Well, did I find gold! A beautifully embroidered, framed silk piece with words in a foreign language. After putting on Facebook and my website, a blog follower who is Greek, told me what how it translates. “This too shall pass”, which happens to be my ALL TIME favorite saying! It is on my blog if anyone wants to take a peek! It’s a beauty! All for $32!!! I think it will be very happy in my home 🙂

  23. Many years ago, I was on a tour in Wisconsin. The brochure for this church we were to visit showed the inside with a plain table as the alter. My jaw dropped when we walked in and the table was covered with the most beautiful Hardanger cloth I had ever seen. Of course, I had left my camera on the bus and my legs wouldn’t allow me to make that uphill walk again.

  24. Ha ha ha I was talking to you the other day and said you should go on a virtual tour to places that have interesting embroidery featured online and you said you were going to the DMV and it does have interesting embroidery. I seriously thought you were online to some foreign museum called the DMV! Klunks forehead!

  25. Love the new, clean look – and it’s so easy to find anything! One oddity for me, though: I have no right column, but the adds show up between articles, as in a mobile view, even though I am on my laptop. Does the browser I’m using (Safari) make a difference?
    Jan S.

    1. Hi, Janice – Thanks for your comment! Whether the right column shows or not depends on your screen width. So if your browser will only open to a certain width, it will jump into a kind of hybrid mode – where you have the right column ads between the posts but the rest of the site visible. If you make your browser yet smaller, the left column will disappear, too, for a complete mobile view (i.e. for phones). The view you’re seeing now is what’s visible on tablets turned horizontally and on smaller laptop screens.

  26. I. too. look for needlework and fabric items when I go out. A few weeks ago we were visiting my son in Boston, MA and we toured the home of Paul Revere. I saw a beautiful Jacobean pillow among the chairs and silver one would expect to find in this historic home from the 1770’s. While the furniture and silver were original to the family, when I asked about the embroidery in the pillow, I was told it was a reproduction made by an acquaintance of the tour guide. None of the original needlework had survived or been preserved, even though maps, dolls. china and sea travel trunks were.

    Just a thought, would your county historical society have more information about that display in the courthouse? Our’s keeps lots of information that is not put into the display cabinets. You may discover even more needlework or fabrics of pioneer life if you ask. You’ve peeked my curiosity, I’m going to check and see what I discover at our local history museum.

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