Thursday, February 22, 2024

Martha Edlin - Her Life and Embroidery

I have been hinting at this for a few months now and finally the time is here.  Martha Edlin, the woman, is ready to come out of obscurity.  

Martha Edlin's embroideries are the most cited set of embroideries in the English language.  They are housed in the V&A museum and were worked between 1668 and 1673 and are assumed to have been worked in a boarding school outside of London.  They are unique because they are all linked to her with initials or names embroidered on the pieces or engraved into silver trinkets inside and potentially show the progression of teaching of embroidery in the last half of the 17th century in England.  They comprise a band sampler, a whitework sampler, three pincushions, a bellows purse, a needle case, a set of small toy gloves, a small box, a embroidered purse and doll head as well as a several sets of small silver toys and personal items like a bodkin.  While other sets exist, this is the most extensive and tied to a known name of a person, who could be researched.

In October of 2022 I was able to present my original research on Martha Edlin's life at Winterthur.  Because of the nature of the talk I needed to show her embroideries and for this I had to get permission from the V&A to give the talk.  They gave me academic permission for the one presentation at Winterthur - but all other uses of the images for the talk would be considered ‘commercial', such as at a guild.  So the talk has been on ice for about 18-months while I tried to negotiate a license to give the talk.  Well, tried to negotiate is an euphemism for emailing/calling all the time and not getting a response.  Well, finally I screamed loud enough and got through and after two months of nail-biting we completed the deal.  I have the ability to sell a certain number of tickets or views of the talk in exchange for a complicated agreement.  I had to license other images of documents as well but those archives were much easier.

I have decided to really go all out trying to get people to listen to Martha's life story.  Partially because she is so fascinating and partially because her life story also significantly changes the conversation about 17th century girls and embroidery.  We have heard the drumbeat over and over again - women didn't have rights, women couldn’t read or write, women were quiet and irrelevant, samplers were about saving patterns, mending and housewifery, and on and on.  I now cringe so much when I hear these things repeated.  The real situation is significantly more complicated and these embroideries are an important part of education of a dynamic class of women.  It is just iconic that not only are Martha’s embroideries intact and amazing but her life story will take a spot as one of the few fleshed out life-stories of a woman of the 17th century.  Researching for years, I am not aware of this level of detail for a woman of this class. Perhaps there is more out there to learn about Early Modern women than we have been led to believe.  And what I spoke about is only what I could fit into 50 minutes.  

I originally wanted to work on a chapter of a book I was hoping someone would allow me to publish on the caskets - the reason behind so much of the Cabinet of Curiosities.  So I started looking at all the known casket makers (at the time three years ago) and looking for the socio-economic level of their fathers.  Who was making these boxes?  But my first try on Martha uncovered so many documents and I realized there was an uncovered story here.  Perhaps the lack of good indexing of archives had flummoxed earlier researchers I assumed, or they couldn’t afford to dig and purchase images of documents.  I kept going until I am now way over 100 documents regarding her life.  I had to pay to have them found in archives with a location fee, then photographed, then sent them to a transcription service who specialized in latin or old english hand.  This went on for years and then the detective work at taking the bits of info in them and weaving them into a full story of her life figuring out from piece to piece who was who and learning so much about middle class 17th century women and men from some really good research of others.  In the process I have become an expert in the Early Modern legal system as it applies to women and so much now makes sense of that period.  

I have decided to make it a mini-course to add more and make it super desirable!  So the course is offered through my regular class site for $15.  You get a 50-minute lecture on Martha’s life (and get this - the V&A catalog and every book is wrong, she wasn’t born in 1660 - so right out of the gate the narrative is changing).  Then a 45-minute lecture on her embroideries in depth and the conclusions I have come to from examining them for so long - surprises are in store that were staring at us in the face.  Then a project inspired from her band sampler. She played with filament silk in ways other sampler makers didn’t.  You can download the instructions and decide to use your stash or buy the kit for Martha’s Rose from the shop site.  I also give a video on filament silk and how to keep tension on it so it works better.  It is a great deal.

The added bonus is that I will donate $5 of each registration to the Textile Department at the V&A.  Please help me spread the word.  My goal is to make an enormous donation to help them photograph more pieces in high resolution so we can really see things.  Not everything is photographed that we are interested in the collection.  Let’s do something about it!

There is only one catch - I can only let people have 31-days of access to the videos.  Part of the deal.  But you can watch over and over inside that 31 days.  And you can download the embroidery instructions and I included the written version with pictures of the filament silk tensioning video.  

Please let your stitching friends know.  As I said, I want to be able to use up my tickets and send a meaningful donation back to the V&A.  And hopefully bring some of these girls, like Martha, back from obscurity.  

Register for the Martha Edlin Mini-Course and watch right away.