Sewing in the classroom

When I discovered that the University of Oklahoma’s Fabrication Laboratory had an embroidery machine (an Entrepreneur Pro X PR1050X 10-Needle Home Embroidery Machine, to be precise), I immediately started scheming about how to use this in my history of science from antiquity to Newton survey. Earlier in the semester, I had students in this class build an astrolabe, armillary sphere and orb model of the sun, using the laser cutters and 3-D printers in the Fab Lab. Now I wanted them to create pieces of embroidery.


What could embroidery possibly have to do with the history of science? I believed (and my students gamely went along with me) that it could teach us a lot about interest in plants and animals in the early modern period. Early modern books about animals and plants were read by contemporary men and women for a wide range of reasons. Some of these reasons – an interest in the physical characteristics of plants and animals and in their medicinal properties – were what we would consider “scientific,” but many were not. People read these books for entertainment, for moral edification and for aesthetic pleasure. One of the uses to which these books were put was as inspiration for embroidery and fabric design. To take just one example, Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87) embroidered this wonderful cat, which was based on an image in Conrad Gessner’s Historiæ animalium (1551), an image that was later reproduced in Edward Topsell’s The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (London, 1658).

“A catte.” Embroidered canvas panel, by Mary, Queen of Scots, ca. 1569-84. Royal Collection Trust.
Cat, from Conrad Gesner, Quadrupedibus vivaparis…, 1551, p. 354.

Embroidery was a skill upper class women were expected to cultivate. However, men too wore clothes embellished with animal and plant motifs, and decorated their houses with embroidered objects. But it’s not the case that women were just looking at the pictures in these books. An interest in plants and animals was increasingly an acceptable and even desirable form of intellectual activity for wealthy women. The same women who turned pictures of flowers from books into embroidery patterns might also visit botanical gardens, cultivate their own gardens, breed silk worms, and make medicines. The choice of which animal or plant to embroider was not just an aesthetic consideration, but one connected to the symbolic, historical, medical and moral meanings ascribed to the creature.

Further, because clothing was highly individualized, having a garment (or a pillow or other decorative item in your home) embroidered with recognizable plants and animals was a way of displaying both your skill in needlework and your botanical or zoological knowledge. This project was intended to spark investigation and discussion of the meanings and uses of science in the early modern period, rather than the more familiar exploration of advances in science.

I asked students to read the following:

  • Janice Neri, The Insect and the Image: Visualizing Nature in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1700 (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), chapter 5.
  • Zara Anishanslin, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World (Yale University Press, 2016), part I.

Then I asked each student to choose an animal from Edward Topsell’s History of Four-Footed Beasts (1658) and turn it into a piece of embroidery, using the embroidery machine in the Fab Lab. They read Topsell’s description of the animal they picked, and then wrote a paragraph or two explaining why they chose this animal and how they imagined an embroidered version of this animal might have been used in the 16th or 17th century. Since none of us had the time and skill to turn these into early modern garments, I just turned them into pillows after we were done.

Embroidered pillows with animals from Topsell’s History of Four Footed Beasts.

Here’s what they came up with:

Two people chose the tortoise. One (a student who wrote a research paper on Sophie Brahe) wrote this about her choice:

For my embroidery, I would choose the tortoise for Sophie Brahe. First of all, Topsell’s illustration is beautiful. The tortoise’s back is very geometric, which reminded me of Sophie Brahe’s knot gardens. With respect to personality, I thought this was the perfect choice for Sophie Brahe. Tortoises are stubborn and intelligent, just as she was described by Tycho. They also need a wide area to roam and don’t do well in captivity if they are not given enough freedom. Sophie also needed her independence to learn and work. Her most productive times were when she was not tied down by her father or a husband. Tortoises move fluidly in water; her time on the island [of Hven] relates her to the ocean, and she was in her element as hostess to many visiting dignitaries there. I think the tortoise embroidery would be beautiful on a stomacher, the part of a dress that would cover the breastbone down to the navel between the parts of the corset. I imagine the tortoise being in the center top, close to her heart, [on black fabric] with gold thread for the shell and bright green thread for the rest.

One student chose the otter (in part because this is Hermione Granger’s patronus) and wrote about how hats made with otter skin were believed to cure migraines.

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We also had a rabbit, “sea horse” (aka hippopotamus), dragon and the Scythian wolf.

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