Entrepreneurial embroiderers

By Sheryl De Jong
A white doily with blue embroidery.

Embroidery by the Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework is beautiful . . . but that's just the beginning of the story. These special pieces weave together a history of entrepreneurial women, making a name for themselves in the late 1800s and contributing to a revolution in decorative arts.

A white doily with embroidery in different shades of blue.
In the 1880s, every table needed a doily before a vase—or anything else—could be placed on it. This doily was embroidered by a member of the Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework.

The story of the Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework doesn't start in Deerfield, but in New York, where Margaret Whiting and Ellen Miller met while taking classes at the Art Students League. In 1895 their families both moved to Deerfield, Massachusetts.

A collage featuring pictures of two women. Each has their hair pulled up and a high neck collar to their blouse, revealing the historic nature of the images. The left image is a sketch, while the right is a cyanotype (a blue photograph).
Margaret Whiting (left) and Ellen Miller (right). Courtesy of Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Memorial Hall Museum, Deerfield, Massachusetts.

Miller's mother was interested in the colonial embroideries in the collection at the Deerfield Museum. She copied the patterns so that others could then reproduce the colonial designs. When her mother died in 1896, Miller continued to copy the colonial patterns, as did Margaret Whiting and their friend Mary Allen. Soon, the project inspired them to plan their own business enterprise.

Their idea: create a village industry closely associated with Deerfield's colonial heritage and inspired by the colonial embroideries they'd been drawing.

Miller and Whiting were influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, which originated in Britain in the 1860s and encouraged a return to handcraftsmanship, simplicity in design, and integrity of materials. The movement rejected the exuberantly realistic designs many women were using for their needlework. The designs were spurned because they were stitched with brightly colored aniline-dyed wool and sold in kits, which critics felt were completely lacking in creativity. Instead, through the Arts and Crafts movement, the Royal School of Needlework encouraged women to embroider using forms and colors popular in the 1600s and 1700s. The school's display at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition raised awareness of and interest in art embroidery in America.

In August 1896 Miller and Whiting founded the Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework. They were joined by Miller's sister, Margaret, and Mary Allen. The society embroidered doilies, counterpanes, bed curtains, and dresser scarves. Allen designed the society’s seal: a "D" for Deerfield, centered in a flax wheel.

An embroidered light blue wagon wheel shape, with an embroidered dark blue capital D in the center.
The seal of the Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework is featured in this doily.

Since the wool fabric in many of the colonial embroideries they used as models had been damaged by moths, the society decided to begin its work with linen fabric and indigo-blue dyed linen thread.

As other neighbors joined, the society enrolled a roster of 25 to 30 women. Society members could take classes in needlework, not offered to the general public.

A photograph with three women, each embroidering a different section of a large piece of fabric.
Members of the Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework working on their embroidery. Courtesy of Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Memorial Hall Museum, Deerfield, Massachusetts.

The society sold its work at an annual summer exhibition and at Arts and Crafts exhibitions in New York, Boston, and Chicago. Deerfield enjoyed an influx of tourists in the summer, who in turn helped to spread the word about the society's products. In time, the society expanded its wares beyond copies of colonial American needlework and offered new designs in contemporary styles and colors.

A coral place mat with multicolored embroidery around the border. At the bottom is the emblem of the Deerfield Society.
This table mat shows the expanded repertoire beyond colonially inspired blue and white embroidery. It depicts a stylized moth embroidered in brown, blue, and green on dyed linen. The "D" which was the mark of the society is embroidered at the bottom center. It is in the collection of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

The Deerfield women became highly skilled at dyeing the linen thread and ground fabric, and soon expanded their color palette from just indigo blues to include the rainbow of shades possible from other natural dyes—madder, fustic, sumac, iron, and native barks. With these dyed linens, the society expanded its patterns as well. The women embroidered door curtains, table linens, and wall hangings, reflecting the public's taste for more color.

Four swaths of fabric, each dyed a different color: green, brown, coral, dark brown.
The different colors of this fabric demonstrate the society's expanded color palette beyond just blue and white. Members of the society used natural dyes to create these colors.
An unfolded piece of green fabric.
Linen dyed by members of the Deerfield Society. The linen ground fabric used by the society was purchased from many sources; Berea College in Kentucky was one important American supplier. The fabric was also imported from Russia, France, Portugal, and Italy. The thread came from Scotland.

An embroiderer could earn up to 20 cents per hour, with the rate varying depending on skill and speed. A "Deerfield girl told her friends here that she could make more money [embroidering] than at school teaching," reported a local paper, the Gazette and Courier, in 1904. "On the other hand, other workers say that they cannot earn over 10 cents an hour."

The Deerfield women set high standards for their work . . . which commanded high prices. As part of their business plan, the full price was divided: 50% went to the embroiderer, 20% to the designer, 20% to a fund used to pay the running expenses of the society, and the remaining 10% went to covering the expense of materials used.

The society dissolved in 1926 when the health of its founders was failing—they did not trust anyone to keep up their standard of excellence. Today, needlework by the society is valued not only for its intrinsic beauty and quality, but for its contributions to the decorative arts in both the Colonial Revival and the Arts and Crafts movements and for the entrepreneurial spirit of its founders.

Sheryl De Jong is a volunteer in the Textile Collection, Division of Home and Community Life. She was excited to learn more about the Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework, and used Suzanne L. Flynt's book Poetry to the Earth in her research.