The Eye of the Needle displays, for the first time in public, a selection of eye-catching, virtuoso seventeenth-century embroideries from the internationally renowned Feller Collection, together with outstanding examples from the Ashmolean
s own holdings. The exhibition explores the context in which these technically exacting works were made by girls and young women at home or school, and what they reveal of the society, economy, and culture of seventeenth- century England.
The embroideries were made during one of the most turbulent centuries in English history, when religious and political beliefs split families and the country. Beyond the opportunity for demonstrating technical ability, the embroideries illustrate the themes and concerns which occupied the minds of the young women making them. They often depict biblical stories at a time when religious issues, including the use of images, aroused great controversy. Similarly, during a period of increasing urbanization the pictorial pieces show idyllic country scenes with imaginary creatures and flowers.
The role that these embroideries played in both creating and reflecting ideals of feminine behavior is also an important part of their history. The seventeenth century saw periodic and often raucous pamphlet wars over the status, roles and education of women. Many girls attended school but the curriculum they followed prioritized the attainment of socially acceptable skills and moral worth over intellectual achievement. While many of the embroideries illustrate biblical themes inventively worked into secular contexts, and the use of myths shows womens engagement with the classics, needlework was, above all, a valued feminine skill. If a girl excelled at it she could hope for social and religious rewards. In a 1688 conduct book ascribed to school mistress, domestic goddess and author, Hannah Woolley, needlework is described as, both needful and pleasant, and commendable in any woman, for it is time well spent for both profit and delight.
The Eye of the Needle displays embroideries which include colourful raised and flat work pictorial panels, fine white and polychrome samplers, household items such as boxes and cushions, and dress accessories including caps, coifs and gloves. This highly feminine embroidery shows visual delight in complex surfaces created through individual use of stitches, colourful silks, metal threads, pearls and semi-precious stones. The use of expensive, luxury materials connects the embroideries with trade, with some pieces depicting symbolic figures of a wider world.
Dr Mary Brooks, curator of the exhibition, says: Micheál and Elizabeth Feller have created a collection which is a visual feast. Ranging from exquisite whitework miniatures to colourful, lavishly decorated embroideries, these curious works intrigue and delight. This exhibition offers a rare opportunity to explore historic needlework in the context of seventeenth-century religion, politics, trade and culture through a feminine perspective.
Dr Catherine Whistler, Senior Curator of European Art, Ashmolean Museum, says: We are profoundly grateful to Micheál and Elizabeth Feller for the opportunity to display their world-renowned collection together with the Ashmoleans important embroideries. We hope that this exhibition will have great appeal, not only to the many enthusiasts for textiles and embroidery, but also to audiences who wish to learn what these beautiful pieces can tell us about a fascinating period of English history and the life of girls and young women in the seventeenth century.