Women in World War I -- French Stitchery

French Stitchery

Northern France was one of the most war-torn areas of the Great War—the Germans entered early on in the war, displacing thousands of French people and destroying much of the region.  As fighting continued in France and trench warfare began, the country became even more devastated.  For the people who remained in northern France during the war, life itself was a battle, a daily struggle to survive, to make ends meet, and to rebuild lives.

The objects in this section are embroidered household items, which at first glance may seem quaint and unconnected to the hardships of living in a war zone.  However, these objects and their backstory show how profoundly World War I affected civilian women and how these women fought to meet the challenges of war.  Through the Society for Employment of Women in France, women in the region of Lorraine were able to sell this hand-made stitchery in America, with all of the proceeds going to the women and their families.  A June 1916 letter that accompanied some of these items paints a vivid picture of the women's lives and their efforts at survival: "The women sit inside their houses under fire constantly, and embroider. When a shell is heard on its way they duck into the cellars until it bursts, and then come out again at once. The cellars are all marked—that is[,] the safe ones, with signs pointing to them and telling their capacity. The women who embroider are those whose men—sons, husbands, and fathers are at the front or wounded or killed . . ."

This powerful scene of French peasant women working tirelessly to embroider household items, close enough to the front to be under constant fire, becomes all the more impressive when you see what the women were making.  The meticulous needlework represents the main Allied forces of the Great War in extraordinarily detailed cross-stitched tableaux depicting colorful soldier figures, flags, coats of arms, and even the city of Paris with planes flying overhead, protecting the city.  In addition to embroidery, which the women typically did during the winter months, they also took to the fields during the summer and tended crops, working until the fields were all harvested.

The flax for these objects was grown in Africa and shipped to France, where it was hand-woven to make the linen.

 

Further Resources

“A World of Thanks: World War I Belgian Embroidered Flour Sacks,” Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum.

Leah Tams, "Embroidery under fire," O Say Can You See? Stories from the National Museum of American History (blog), March 5, 2015.