V31: Book Review: “18th Century Embroidery Techniques” by Gail Marsh

18th Century Embroidery Techniques
Gail Marsh
(c) 2006 by Gail Marsh
ISBN 978-1-86108-476-7

There comes a time in every 18th century costumer’s career when embroidery seems like a good idea.  So many 18th century garments feature embroidery, and so many different types of needlework at that.  If you are a novice like me, trying to make a start with Georgian embroidery can be incredibly daunting, but luckily there is 18th Century Embroidery Techniques to get noobs like us started.

The Pros:
I was delighted by this colorful, hardbound book, when it arrived, because it was so dang affordable, for one, but also because it’s in full color.  The illustrations are clear and easy to read, and the accompanying photos allow us to see how the finished techniques look in real life.

The book covers various methods, with an emphasis on metal thread embroidery, which is perhaps the most lost to us today.  Silk embroidery, whitework, and quilting are also covered, as well as tambour, crewel, and novelty embroideries such as ribbon work.  The author starts us off with a thorough description of the tools needed, as well as a historical note, and finishes with a very useful glossary of terms.


18th Century Embroidery Techniques provides a nice variety of clothing examples, from men’s waistcoats, to women’s stays, neckerchiefs, aprons, and petticoats.  We also get a look at pockets, mitts, and caps, all of which give the reader a good idea of how extensive was embroidery in the 18th century.

Perhaps most importantly, this book removes some of the intimidating mystery surrounding these complex-looking motifs.  Miss Marsh breaks down the designs and points out each type of stitch or method used for each part.  The beginning embroiderer can pick and choose from the designs, and try her hand at many styles, in many materials, finding which works best for her and her project.

typical 18th c. design w/ drawn work, Provencal fichu

The Cons:
While 18th Century Embroidery Techniques is very informative, the author assumes the reader will know a little bit about embroidery already.  I was confused by some of the terminology, especially in the metal thread section – for instance, “purl” is mentioned regularly, but I had to flip to the back of the book to look up what “purl” meant, before continuing.

Some sections of the book are more in-depth and instructive than others.  The metal thread, silk embroidery, and quilting sections showed some “how to” for the stitches or technique, but the whitework section, particularly in regards to Dresden Work, was very scant in directions, and I was not able to understand how this technique is done.

Via Trouvais

I would highly recommend 18th Century Embroidery Techniques for anyone with a serious interest in learning how to embroidery in the 18th century style.  It is an excellent book to use in conjunction with other resources and tutorials, and gives specific examples that can be adapted or copied for your own projects.  As with any craft, embroidery is highly skilled, but also easy to get into (and addictive), and you will soon find yourself stitching spangles and bullion knots onto your robes and petticoats.


  • Sandra Brake

    February 1, 2012 at 9:12 AM

    If you're really stuck find your local embroiderer's guild or group. They have sooooo much knowledge they can pass on. I'm kind of lucky, my Mum's been an embroiderer for years and loved doing things like gold work, black work, pulled thread and drawn thread work, and hardanger.

    • Lauren R

      February 1, 2012 at 7:27 PM

      Travs, I'm not sure I have a local embroidery guild 🙁 Worth looking, though. This definitely seems like a craft that must be taught rather than trying to learn it on the internet

  • ZipZip

    February 1, 2012 at 5:38 PM

    Dear Lauren,

    Yes, Gail Marsh's book is really wonderful, but it's just an introduction, a quick dip into very deep waters.

    I'd be hesitant to use it alone to produce goldwork, for example. At the least you will want a manual to go with it: Mary Corbet's Needle 'N Thread site has reviews of some good books to help you, and there are some other good blogs out there, like The Unbroken Thread. There are also courses offered at the Royal School of Needlework, and as a Traveler in Time wrote, at some needlework guilds. Goldwork was a professional skill then and remains a challenging skill now, and from personal experience I know that it takes time and effort to get results you'll be happyish with. Getting plate or purl or passing thread or even spangles to lie well and to shape as you wish them to, is something you learn over time. I've done a LOT of taking my work out, for example, and even after more than a year of work, feel like a bare novice. We have a local expert here whose work blows me away; I hope to take a some classes this fall. Plus, 18th c goldwork usually was mixed with varieties of silk embroidery (not cotton floss, which lacks shine and glow), and lots of that was in satin stitch, which for anyone who has done it, knows how wonderfully satisfying it can be, but also how much planning and care it takes.

    Dresden work, while at the beginning was a substitute for lace, became a highly accomplished needle art. It is very detailed work that includes a combination of applied stitches and drawnwork in fine threads. It's not too often done now, unless in Schwalm work, I suspect because it's so exactly and being white on white, can get hard on the eyes.

    Sure hope to see more people dive into the embroidery part of costuming. It's all too rare!

    Very best,


    • Lauren R

      February 1, 2012 at 7:29 PM

      Zips – this is great information. Yes, I could see that the section on metal working was just scratching the surface. I'm afraid to try it, really! I was thinking I might start with white work on a neckerchief, or maybe trying some hand quilting on a petticoat. I don't know if I'll ever go for the gold work. I tried to embroider in metallic threads once…it wasn't pretty!

  • ZipZip

    February 2, 2012 at 4:08 PM

    Dear Lauren,
    Oh, don't be afraid to try goldwork! Jump in on something small, like a reticule, with some spangles and couched passing thread, and you might be surprised. Yes, it's fiddly, but some days that can be relaxing.

    As for metallic threads? Can you see me making the cross with my fingers: back, back, ye demons? Metallic thread can so easily tangle and twist and make you crazy.

    Very best, and my Astoria order is in! Can't wait to trip the light fantastic on Spindletop's dance floor this spring at a wedding. A great shoe to choose for formal wear, as much as for costuming!

    Very best,


    • Lauren R

      February 3, 2012 at 3:39 AM

      I think I will try it out, start small like you suggest. I think I could maybe handle some sequins :-). I've been following your goldwork progress on your Regency gown. To DIE for!

  • Gwenyver

    February 5, 2012 at 12:20 PM

    I also have this book – a gift from my aunt. I know nothing of embroidery and have yet to try something more complicated than cross stitch, but I loved the history and technique described in the book. I do wonder how people managed to steal gold thread off of people's clothes at parties without the victim noticing.

  • MrsC (Maryanne)

    February 6, 2012 at 7:51 PM

    Lauren did you buy it or did Amazon or soeone ask you to review it? I hope so because I bought two copies off Amazon – one for me and one for an embroidery mad friend, and they were cleaned out of it-no doubt I'm not the ony one moved to act by your review :). So they ought to be giving you books to review, my dear!! 🙂

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