Stumpwork – sounds kind of weird, doesn’t it! It makes me think I should be sitting on a tree stump working away on something or other. It reminds me of the term “stitching in the ditch.” Both terms are a far cry from the mental picture that pops into one’s mind.
Stumpwork is a form of raised or three-dimensional embroidery and has been around since Elizabethan times. According to Branwen Wallis, “brodees en relief” were created to be used in ecclesiastical and secular use. Many of the church vestments were decorated with highly padded stumpwork figures. The base of a figure was often made of hemp, fabric, leather or even hair that was covered with silk, satin or couched metallic threads. The figures were then appliquéd to the ground or background fabric.
Examples of fine stumpwork can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The collection includes a raised bookbinding made by the 11-year-old Princess Elizabeth in 1561 for Katherine Parr, her stepmother.
Stumpwork fell out of favor for quite some time and then was revived again in the 19th century. The Amish and Mennonites in Lancaster County made quilts, pillows, pincushions and other small items. Most of the examples of Amish stumpwork I have seen incorporate a five-pointed star worked on small woolen squares. The squares are stitched together using a herringbone embroidery stitch then the whole piece is backed with a piece of fabric.
The stars are made of wool and are embroidered over metal templates. After the star is completed, the wool is clipped and brushed, thus creating a raised, rather fuzzy motif.
While most people think of the Amish as being a very somber people, many of their quilts and their stumpwork use colors that are as bright as a rainbow. It is surprising to look at their color palette while thinking about their simple lifestyle and clothing.
I chanced upon an example of stumpwork at an antique mall in Kansas City. The price was right so I brought it home with me with the intention of learning more about the process. The orange, cream and brown stars are on eight-inch squares of grey wool. A puffy tri-colored circle is in the center of each star and at the corner of each square.
The squares have been sewn together into rows of three across and seven down so the piece measures about 18” x 56” with a 2” border added all the way around. I am not sure for what purpose this piece was intended. Perhaps it was placed across the foot of a bed or maybe it decorated the back of a sofa or the top of a dresser. It is the wrong size to be used as a quilt, even if it were placed on a child’s bed.
Whatever the purpose, I find this a very intriguing piece of work. I am tempted to unsew the backing fabric so I can see what the construction looks like from the reverse side. There are a few small holes in the back so it may be a good idea to replace it completely, yet I am hesitant because I don’t know if it would ruin the integrity of the piece.
My curiosity has been piqued. You will probably be able to find me at the library or surfing the internet trying to discover more about this type of needlework. Ah, so much to discover, so much to learn!