If you visit an English Church you are sure to see hand embroidered kneelers a plenty made by the good ladies of the parish.
These kneelers are stitched in wool yarn with a style of embroidery known as Berlin wool work “BWW” – a style of embroidery similar to needlepoint. The two most common stitches found in BWW are cross stitch and tent stitch although Beeton’s book of Needlework (1870) describes 15 different stitches for use in BWW. Coloured beads are sometimes added to accent a design.
An interesting stitch used in BWW is the Surrey stitch which creates a thick three dimensional pile that adds a richness and reality to floral designs. It is a form of turkey work which we occasionally see in the reproduction samplers we love to stitch.
A good tutorial is available from the needlepoint teacher and can be watched HERE
BWW was developed in Germany in the 19th century and was based on hand painted cross stitch charts that were worked with a very soft wool that was spun in the city of Saxe-Gotha. The wool was taken to Berlin, where it was dyed in brilliant, large colour palettes. This was possible due to the discovery of aniline dyes.
Artists in Berlin soon began to develop charts and classic paintings were copied onto canvas in squares of colour together with original designs of flowers and geometric shapes.
“Point” paper (graph paper using 1 square to the inch) was used to show coloured blocks that corresponded to the squares on the canvas. Before this, colours had been shown by codes and patterns that were printed using copper plates. A very expensive process.
Now the embroiderer could follow a coloured graph by counting lines, squares, and stitches on a blank canvas. A new canvas was created that had parallel threads crossing at larger intervals, and that innovation was followed by the inclusion of a blue line placed vertically at intervals of 5 or 10 threads to help the stitcher count.
The wool used for Berlin work was softer than crewel thread, which was wiry and twisty, and strands of woven crewel thread were very difficult to separate. Berlin wool was manufactured for knitting as well as embroidery.
Eventually, Berlin wool was produced in Yorkshire by blending German and English wool. English needleworkers preferred a softer colour palette to the brilliant German colours.
BWW became very popular in Victorian England and soon homes were full of durable and long-lived pieces of embroidery that could be used as furniture covers, fire screens, cushions, bags and clothing. Our churches too with the kneelers for the church pews which started my musing on Berlin wool work.