LATEST RESEARCH ON EMBROIDERED SILK POSTCARDS
(© Ian Collins 2010)
When An Illustrated History of the Embroidered Silk Postcard was published, no information was available on the manufacturing techniques used to make the embroidered panels incorporated into silk postcards.
I took my reference from an earlier booklet on silk postcards by Radley and information from dated cards in my collection, and said: “The panels were embroidered at home by female members of peasant families, to augment their meagre incomes … the embroidery was worked by hand with the fabric stretched over a simple wooden frame, by 1915 machine embroidery had been introduced, though hand embroidery still predominated.”
I now know this statement to be wrong.
I never felt happy that the majority of silk postcards could be made from hand embroidered panels. It did not seem possible that hand embroiderers could produce such a quantity and variety of designs, in such consistent quality. It is now clear that the silk panels were not embroidered by hand, but were made on machines. The different effects produced in the embroidery depended on the type of machine used.
Brief history of machine embroidery
Josué Heilmann of Mulhouse in France invented the earliest “hand-embroidery machine” in 1828, and it had the capacity of four traditional embroiderers working by hand. It is important to realise that this was 18 years before Elias Howe patented the first functional sewing machine in 1846, and it was the 1850s before Isaac Singer produced the first commercially viable sewing machine.
The Heilmann embroidery machine consisted of a frame to hold the fabric, a needle assembly and a handle to work the needle. It was operated by moving the fabric to meet the needle, which had a point at each end and an eye in the middle. A small clamp on each side of the fabric controlled the needle. The needle was held in one clamp, pushed into the fabric, picked up by the opposite clamp and drawn through. The frame holding the fabric was moved and the needle passed back. The process allowed stitching in any direction, and continued until the pattern was complete.
The machine was such a threat to traditional hand embroiderers that Heilmann agreed to sell only two in Switzerland. Henry Houldsworth of Manchester, England purchased the patent rights in 1829. At the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace of 1851, his company displayed “specimens of patent machine embroideries”, which were multicoloured and on a variety of fabrics.
By about 1850, Franz Vogler from St Gallen in Switzerland had improved the machine (though it is not known what these improvements were). The first embroidery factory was established there in 1854 and 120 of the improved machines were installed. The Heilmann machine continued to be developed and, by about 1870, it incorporated multiple needles to carry different coloured threads and was fitted with a pantograph to replicate the design. At this time, 14 companies were manufacturing hand-embroidery machines in the St Gallen region.
Embroidery made on the hand-embroidery machine was more even and consistent than traditional hand made embroidery and the quality was unsurpassed. This is probably the reason why earlier researches into embroidery on silk postcards believed they were embroidered by hand. The name of “hand-embroidery machine” could also have added to the confusion.
A hand-embroidery machine at work in a factory in Calais in about 1905, taken from a contemporary postcard. This was a large piece of machinery. Other photographs in the same series show it was one of a number in a large factory.
The embroiderer on the left operated the machine. His left hand guided the pantograph, moving it around the enlarged design and following individual stitches. The pantograph positioned the fabric in front of the needles. He used his right hand to crank the wheel on the end of the machine and push the needles through the fabric, whilst opening and closing the clamps holding the needles with his feet. It must have taken a lot of concentration.
The female assistant checked the needles and threads worked properly, rethreaded the needles when the thread ran out, and repaired broken threads as the machine went along. Notice the continuous line of spools of silk thread at waist level and near the bottom. The thread from each spool was connected to a needle, which indicates how many needles were on the machine. Postcards with up to 12 different colours have been seen using this machine, though 6-8 is more usual.
By the time this photograph was taken, France had become the pre-eminent country for machine made embroideries. There was production still in Switzerland around the St Gallen area, but not on the same scale.
While the hand embroidery machine dominated in the mid to late 19th century, other developments were taking place to supercede it. In 1863, Isaac Groebli of Oberuzwil, also in Switzerland, invented a different type of embroidery machine, which worked on the same principle as a sewing machine, with a normal needle. It required two threads for each needle, one of which was picked up from a shuttle behind the fabric. It was named the Schiffli machine, from the small boat-shaped shuttle that produced the backing stitch (German: Schiff – boat). The machine needed years of development before it became commercially viable. Its design borrowed the hand crank and pantograph from the hand-embroidery machine. It could also stitch in any direction.
The automatic Schiffli embroidery machine was invented in 1898 by Isaac Groebli's eldest son. This dispensed with the pantograph and incorporated a Jacquard system of punched cards to create the design. By 1900, it was fitted with 312 needles, and electrically driven machines were becoming available. These machines were so massive they were only suited for factory use.
By about 1900, St Gallen in Switzerland and Plauen in Saxony were the two main centres for the manufacture of embroidery machines of both types. There was also manufacture of embroidered goods in their vicinities, and in 1906 Plauen described itself as “the capital city of the embroidery industry”, although it is clear that, by this time, France had become the major supplier of embroidered goods.
This is a Schiffli embroidery machine from about 1905. It has been fitted with a Jacquard punched card system on the left hand side, to replace the pantograph. It looks as if this machine is fully automated and one man was in charge of it. No doubt continual changes were made to all the machines over the years. The higher capacity of this machine came from the double banks of thread at both floor and waist level, and that it is much longer than the hand-embroidery machine.
The silk panels made on this machine had up to 6 colours, illustrating another disadvantage compared to the hand-embroidery machine, although 3-4 colours was more common. The stitches are less delicate than those on the hand embroidery machine, to give the cards a distinct look, and some of them are particularly attractive.
The vast majority of embroided silk postcards made from silk panels from a Schiffli machine were greetings cards. They became available during 1915 and large numbers were made. It appears that Schiffli machines were only used for embroidered silk postcard panels when it was evident that the cards were selling in quantity. This probably reflects the more expensive set-up costs for the larger automatic Schiffli machines, and indicates longer production runs than the hand-embroidery machine. Even so, Schiffli production accounted for only about 22% of the total of embroidered silk greetings postcards made in the Great War period.
By 1900, hand embroidery had almost been replaced by machined embroidery, except for very expensive and individual articles of clothing. Embroidery factories became large and fully integrated. They took in the raw silk at one end and sent out the finished articles at the other.
An extract from a contemporary article describes the beginning of the process:
"A great deal of the raw silk we get does not come to us in skeins. It comes in bales made up of cocoons, the threads of which have been broken, and of loose threads. The cocoons have to be boiled in soapy water to do away with the gum that holds the tiny threads together. They are then dried in drums.
These washed cocoons pass then to the dressing mill where they are ripped open by rollers set full of sharp teeth. The silk fibres are thus pulled apart in great sheets called laps. The laps are then run through a picking machine. This machine draws the threads out still more and cuts the laps into short lengths. Then follows more cleaning and drawing... ..."
The picture on this postcard shows the dyehouse in the factory illustrated above. Dyeing the raw silk was part of the process and it looks fairly basic - immersing skeins of silk in vats of dyestuff of different colours, washing off the excess colour, and drying them - before returning them to the factory to be spun, ready for weaving or embroidery.
The workers in this picture are preparing the backing material on which the embroidery will be stitched. Notice how thin the material is, almost transparent - so this is likely to be silk tulle (netting). Other backing materials were silk fabric, organdie (the finest cotton), and a mixture of cotton and silk (one in the weft, the other in the warp of the fabric). Pure silk is not often found in silk postcards, probably because it was expensive, organdie or the silk/cotton mix are more common. Once stretched and flattened, the backing material was wound onto a large reel, ready to be mounted on the embroidery machine.
A view inside the Design Department of an embroidery factory. The senior man on the right is posing in front of a book of designs and there are over 150 other books in the rack behind them. It has often been wondered where and how the designs for embroidered silk postcards came about. It must have been in rooms such as this where they translated the military badges, patriotic messages and sentimental greetings into designs that would work within the confines of industrial embroidery. It probably explains why there were so many designs - each factory had a place like this, working independently, putting their own individual creativity into the designs.
The finishing room in the factory, where the completed embroideries were inspected in detail and minor repairs made to any imperfections. I assume these ladies worked in more space and they have just been lined up for the photograph.
As far as I am aware, no picture exists showing women making up embroidered silk postcards - by sticking the embroidered panel on to card and adding the embossed frame to finish off the product - but it is easy to imagine a similar scene to this picture where embroidered silk postcards could have been made.
A set of uncut embroidered panels which have survived unframed. These come up for sale occasionally and sheets as wide as 400 designs have been recorded. The individual silk panels were cut out by hand, mounted on card, and the frame glued on to hold everything together. It is likely that this was allowed to dry in a press as the edges tend to curl when wet with glue. Anyone who has tried to reframe a silk panel will know just how difficult it is to get everything stuck together and centred properly. It is hard to imagine the patience and attention to detail required to do this every day, all day, as a full time job. Sometimes, the gum is visible from the front of the final product.
Although the “hand-embroidery machines” were large and heavy, they were just suitable for home use – provided the home had a large enough downstairs room to accommodate it. Consequently, home manufacture always competed with factory manufacture. At home, the whole family was involved. The father usually operated the machine, while his wife and children threaded the bobbins, checked the needles, rectified any breakages in the thread during the embroidery process, packed up the final product, etc.
Now we know that the embroidered panels were made by machine, it explains why rolls of material have survived with up to 400 identical patterns on them. These are what remains of the embroidered fabric that was sent to the postcard publisher to be mounted on white card, and finished off with an attractive embossed frame around the silk panel.
Most embroidery, of course, was for embellishing garments and decorative fabrics. Embroidered silk postcards were only a minor product except for the short period of the Great War. The embroidered panels for most silk postcards were made on one or other of the above two machines. In 1914, the men were called up to the army and the women took over the looms. The sales of embroidered silk postcards provided a useful addition to their production. It is believed that the designs were created by the main ateliers and publishers, usually based in Paris. If the paper pattern used on the pantograph was incorrect, it would be duplicated by the embroiderer. This accounts for spelling mistakes on silk postcards which are reproduced wrongly every time.
The equivalent of the “hand-embroidery machine” no longer exists, though a few machines are known to have survived. One has been restored and installed in an embroidery factory in Cordes sur Ciel, near Toulouse in France. It is claimed to be the only operating hand-embroidery machine in France, and demonstrations are held during the summer months. The machine was recovered it from a local cottage, where it occupied the whole of the largest downstairs room, and there were once over 300 machines in use in the village.
Machines based on the Schiffli principle now dominate modern embroidery, except now they are fully automatic and computer controlled, and are capable of producing masses of the same design at a time.
The silk panel on this postcard was made on the hand-embroidery machine. Notice the complexity of the design from 7 colours and how the reverse stitch has been used to good effect in the design as a background to the lettering.
Almost all of the postcards with military, naval, air force, portrait, named places, and better designed patriotic subjects were made on the hand-embroidery machine. It offered a more flexible technique and could handle complex patterns easier.
Cards made on this machine were available long before the Great War. Manufacturers just adjusted their production to the new situation. Patriotic embroidered silk postcards and postcards for the larger army corps (such as the Army Service Corps) were available before the end of 1914.
There is evidence that individuals could take their own design to a publisher and have it made up into a silk postcard. I have a rare Canadian Battalion card in my collection with the following message on the back: “The fellow, one of our boys that designed this, was killed before they got back from England so he never saw the finished article”. This possibly explains why some small units had postcards made for them but others didn’t.
The vast majority of cards made on a Schiffli machine were simple greetings cards such as the one shown above. They became available during 1915 and large numbers of them were made. So it was only when it was evident that embroidered silk postcards were selling in quantity that Schiffli designs appeared. This probably reflects the more expensive set-up costs for the automatic Schiffli machine with its Jacquard punched card system, and indicates longer production runs than the hand-embroidery machine. Even so, Schiffli production accounted for only about 22% of the total of embroidered silk greetings postcards made in the Great War period.
The Cornely Embroidery Machine
This picture on the left shows a room full of Cornely embroidery machines. The Cornely machine was invented in 1868 by Antoine Bonnaz of Paris. It used a single, hooked needle and a single thread, producing a chain stitch that could run in any direction. It was a small machine that worked from a treadle, and was a similar size to a domestic sewing machine. They were widely used for simple embroidered designs on clothing, mats, tablecloths, etc.
The picture on the right shows a high resolution image of the work being carried out by the woman on the left hand side of the above picture. It shows she is working on an intricate pattern of foliage work a netting base. She probably worked from a pattern, but there must have been lots of room for individuality as she is working free hand.
This card was made on the Cornély embroidery machine. These cards have an individual look about them and are rare, although many people have one or two in their collection. I have never seen two of the same design and they are often personalised, as above. They have baffled everybody for years: where they came from and how they were made.
They were embroidered onto a fine tulle netting which was then attached to an official “Service des Troupes en Campagne” postcard. They often have the Cross of Lorraine on them or refer to Lorraine, so that is probably where they originated.
This postcard was sent from Maurice Page of the (French) 37th Territorial Regiment on 30th September 1916 to Madame Page in Paris. It is personalised with his name, and I have more in my collection with other names. It is likely there was an enterprising company (or even a person as Cornely machines were perfect for home use) in the Lorraine area during the Great War that made cards like these to order.
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