Berlin Wool Work

Berlin wool work sampler, mid-19th century, England. Berlin wool work sampler, mid-19th century, England. Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK, acc. no. T.240-1967.

Berlin wool work, or briefly Berlin work, is a style of embroidery that is normally associated with the use of woollen yarn (tapestry yarn) on canvas. Berlin wool work was usually worked with the help of embroidery charts in a single stitch, notably cross stitch or tent stitch.

The same charts used for embroidery were applied to create beaded as well as knitted designs. This type of work was traditionally carried out in many colours to produce intricate, almost three-dimensional effects. Berlin wool work was stimulated by the discovery of aniline dyes in the 1830's, which meant that a much wider range of bright colours could be produced and used for embroidery. During the nineteenth century a popular type of wool for this work was known as Berlin wool.

Berlin work patterns were first produced and published in Berlin (Germany), hence its name, in the early nineteenth century. The first patterns were printed in black and white on grid paper and then hand coloured. Later designs were machine printed. Berlin wool work was used for covering a wide range of objects, including soft furnishings, such as chair seats and backs, cushions, curtains, footstools, fire-screens, ‘paintings’, as well items of clothing and accessories including bags, belts, book covers, caps, purses, slippers, tobacco pouches, just about anything that could be covered.

A wide range of patterns were on offer, including geometric designs, floral motifs, copies of popular Victorian paintings, and Biblical and allegorical scenes. Patterns were often published as single sheets for large designs, or as a range of small, related patterns, such as roses, often with four to eight designs to a sheet. Selling the patterns as individual sheets made it much easier and cheaper for people to buy a particular design – it was not necessary to purchase a whole book just for one or two patterns or motifs.

By the mid-nineteenth century Berlin work had become extremely popular and patterns were being exported throughout northern Europe and North America. For many people, ‘Berlin work’ became synonymous with canvas embroidery. In the late 1880's the demand for Berlin wool work decreased due to changes in popular taste, and a desire for simpler and less ‘cluttered’ designs.

Source: Pat Berman, 'Berlin Work', published in Needle Pointers, Febr./March 1990, and revised in October 2000. Digitally available here (retrieved 8 June 2016).

See also the entry on an embroidered picture 'Girld holding a cat', now in the Victoria and Albert Museum and dated to c. 1840, and to a nappy basket with Berlin wool work decoration.

See also the digital TRC exhibition, Berlin Work Charts (TRC, Leiden, 2018).

V&A online catalogue (retrieved 6 July 2016).


Last modified on Wednesday, 25 April 2018 07:47
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