Isabella Rosner and Melinda Watt Discuss English Quaker Needlework

Feb 17, 2022

On Thursday, February 10, 2022, Isabella Rosner, PhD Candidate in History at King’s College in London, shared her research on 17th-century Quaker needlework from public and private collections. Isabella’s research explores the contradictions in a variety of 17th-century Quaker needlework made by girls and women in the Society of Friends. Their needlework is opulent, surprising given the Society’s investment in and promotion of plainness from its inception.

After her presentation, Isabella was joined in conversation by her mentor and friend, Melinda Watt, Christa C. Mayer Thurman Curator of Textiles at The Art Institute of Chicago.

Isabella began her presentation with an overview of schoolgirl needlework made in the London borough of Hackney before the founding of Shacklewell, the first official Quaker girls school, in 1668. She shared incredible examples of Quaker needlework from this period, which provide ample evidence of opulence and vibrancy. Her object-based approach allows her to group needlework from collections around the world and provides evidence of their utility in 17-century Quaker society.

Focusing on the Shacklewell Quaker girl’s school, Isabella shared fascinating insight on a beautiful group of objects. Shacklewell was intended to instruct young girls in useful skills. Isabella began with a suite of objects made by Hannah Downes c. 1683 that demonstrate a telling contradiction. Isabella commented how “even though leading Quakers were preaching the importance of plainness, contemporary Quaker girls’ art was flagerently decorative.” This group of needlework not only showcases ornate, colorful design but is also made from fine materials including high-quality linen and expensive silks. The use of these materials indicates that the needlework came from families that were enjoying economic success.

Isabella points out that “While 17th-century Quaker needlework is much more opulent than would be expected from a religious group so invested in the testimony of plainness, the Society’s stitching aesthetic is likely due to its usefulness. Embroidering highly decorative objects with high quality materials allowed the Quaker girls to learn how to use the goods produced, handled, and sold by their parents, future husbands, friends, and other members of the Quaker community, the majority of whom were involved in the textile trade.” 

To see these beautiful objects and hear more about Isabella’s fascinating research, watch her full lecture below.

The Decorative Arts Trust hosts virtual dialogues that feature scholars sharing and discussing their exciting new research with colleagues in the field. The hour-long Zoom program includes a lecture, scholar-to-scholar conversation, and Q&A with the program participants. 

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Formerly known as the "blog,” the Bulletin features new research and scholarship, travelogues, book reviews, and museum and gallery exhibitions. The Bulletin complements The Magazine of the Decorative Arts Trust, our biannual members publication.


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