E is for Embroideress

When deciding which predominantly female occupation to write about for the E in our alphabet I had to make a difficult decision between Envelope Folder and Embroideress. There are, of course, a surprisingly large number of other ‘E’s in the census – Errand girls were frequently recorded, Eating House Keepers, a couple of Electric Primer Testers in 1901 in Camberwell, Enamel Painters and even an Electrical Fitter (a surprising occupation for a woman), but in the end, after careful consideration and reading around the various occupations, it seemed that the embroideresses had an interesting story to tell, although I must confess, had I managed to get more information on that Electrical Fitter and the Electric Primer Testers they may well  have made the A-Z!

Embroideresses were everywhere in Victorian England. Most towns and villages had at least one working in the community, and when you consider the extent to which the clothes of the rich and the uniforms of service personnel at all levels were richly embroidered in the nineteenth-century, it is unsurprising that they made up such a significant part of the workforce.

court dress

Court Dress, 1860-65 c Victorian and Albert Museum, London

They were skilled women – although, in the homes of the middle and upper-classes embroidery was a skill taught to all young ladies – the actual work of embroidering on an industrial scale, with the perfection required to produce piece after identical piece, each to an extremely high standard, required the dexterity and skill of a top needlewoman.

In the  image here of this beautiful court dress dating from 1860-65 the detail is staggering. The edge of the train is worked on a machine, but the roses and morning glories covering the skirt, bodice and train are each worked by hand.
The most skilful of these women served anything from a four to seven year apprenticeship, however their work was far from guaranteed.image here of this beautiful court dress dating from 1860-65 the detail is staggering. The edge of the train is worked on a machine, but the roses and morning glories covering the skirt, bodice and train are each worked by hand.  The most skilful of these women served anything from a four to seven year apprenticeship, however their work was far from guaranteed.

In the mid nineteenth-century many women worked, not on the glorious dresses shown here, but on the collars and uniforms of the services. What is forgotten in our days of mass produced garments and materials, is that every single badge, every stripe, every motif, every collar on every military uniform, every police uniform, every service garment, every clerical robe, had to be hand embroidered.

In an article written in The Morning Chronicle, in January 1850, an embroideress described the type of work she was doing.[1]


This particular woman, who had worked for many years as an embroideress having served a seven year apprenticeship, was preparing collars and badges for a vast array of different services and forces. She explains in the news article how the work available to her had dropped significantly in the previous five years, and that she was becoming concerned that soon there would not be a sufficient income to keep her. This was to become worse when, in 1854, the military suggested the removal of gold embroidery from their epaulettes and collars, a ‘threat’ which threw the livelihoods of military embroideresses into turmoil. Throughout September, the Morning Post posted letters written by these women:[2]

Fetch (2)

By the 1870s the occupation of embroideress was certainly not so common as it had once been – but to lay the blame purely at the feet of the military would be unfair. As with everything else in Victorian Britain, embroidery was becoming industrialised. Machines were now able to do much of the work that the skilled women of the mid century had once done, but they were still very much needed, to the extent that ‘white work’ – the beautiful embroidery carried out on white linen with white silk – was suggested as a skill to be taught to destitute girls and women in need of an occupation in order to make a living by organisations such as the Charity Organisation Society in 1899.

By the turn of the century embroidery was still such a significant source of income that it is one of the named occupations examined by the Women’s Industrial Council for their survey of married women’s work. It is here that we can see quite how far though the availability of work, and more importantly the wages, had fallen since the heyday of the mid 1840s.  Whereas the embroideress interviewed for The Morning Chronicle had earnt as much as 29s a week, and regularly could earn 12s a week in 1850, by 1910 the women were now earning only 8-9s making policemen’s armlets or worsted lettering for railway uniform collars.  Women working on decorated garments were also paid a low rate, but for these there was also the cost of the silks:

No. 7 (the WIC did not name the women they interviewed) was an able and superior woman who, with her daughter, embroidered children’s garments, making their own designs. She did not begin to work until she was 40 years old, when the family circumstances became impoverished. She designed her own patterns, and made samples which she sent to her employers, assigning a rate for each. The manufacturers generally gave her an order for the pattern they preferred, and usually accepted her rate. Rates varied from 2/- a dozen for small collars, to 18/- a dozen for pelisses. No. 7 provided the embroidering silk, which she bought from her employers by the pound, at a cost of 1½d for a skein for 14 threads. She showed the investigator a cape embroidered from a design of hers by her daughter. It had taken two hours, and just over two skeins of silk. The payment was to be 9/- a dozen, and the deduction of 3d for silk leaves a net total of 6d per cape. The mother thought her takings, which varied from 5/- to 20/- a week – averaged about 12/-, taking the year through. Fares were a heavy item; she lived far from the centre. She said there was a great competition even for work so skilled and responsible as hers, and that the garments were sold so cheaply as to produce underpayment.[3]  

Although work for embroideresses declined throughout the Victorian period, for women who were facing destitution it was an attractive alternative to other ‘female’ occupations such as charring and washing. For the women who had served their apprenticeships, the reduction in work, and the increase in industrial embroidery (which they all considered inferior and very poor in quality) was heartbreaking – the feeling coming through the remaining letters and documents is one of hopelessness and fear. For some, particularly those working on gold embroidery at the turn of the century, however, the news was not so bad. Black refers to a woman known as No.8 who earned in excess of 30/- a week, on occasion £2 – her trade? –  making an apron for ‘an Eastern potentate which had three pounds of god upon it’, and making ‘all kinds of elaborate things for the Freemasons.’[4] Maybe it was a case not so much of what you knew and how skilled you were, as who you knew….

The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Tuesday, January 8, 1850; Issue 25029.

[2] MILITARY EMBROIDERY . The Morning Post (London, England), Friday, September 08, 1854; pg. 4; Issue 25174. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II.

[3] C. Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1984), p.102

[4] C. Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1984), p.103

6 comments on “E is for Embroideress

  1. north on

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