Painted with Thread

Painted with Thread: The Art of American Embroidery

On view April 13, 2001 to September 30, 2001

Located in the: Special Exhibition Galleries

Embroidery is an aesthetic act. Texturally lush and evocative works of art have been painted, not with oils or watercolor, but with thread. It is a medium that pleases the eye but also challenges perceptions about art.

Perhaps the artist was a woman. Perhaps she worked at her composition in the evening, her head bent over a piece of cloth while her family slept, her brilliantly hued image and message blossoming in a flurry of small, skilled stitches. It may have been a statement about beauty, romance, or an idealized view of the world. Or she may have used embroidery to explore deeper subjects such as world events, memories, and encounters with other places and times. Her artistic expression took form in the flickering light—betraying remarkable skill, a need to be heard, and a wish to incorporate beauty into her world.

Or maybe the artist was a Rhode Island sailor on a voyage through the Pacific Ocean, whose style of embroidery actually suggests tattooing. He used a running stitch and wool thread to embroider stars, flowers, human figures, and palm leaves onto a pair of wool pants so worn they’d been patched and restitched. Here was a man—an artist—thoroughly familiar with shipboard skills such as stitching sails and knotting. Freed from social constrictions of his counterparts on land, he explored artistic expression using the implements at hand.

Embroidery’s broad and complex tradition, spanning generations of stitchers and a vast range of purposes, defies easy classification. Painted with Thread: The Art of American Embroidery is as intensely thought provoking as it is beautiful. This is the first major exhibition highlighting the works in the museum’s extensive American embroidery collection. The exhibition spans 380 years, and features works of embroidery art, stories about embroidery artists, their tools and processes, and the historical and cultural setting in which embroidery artists worked. One notable feature of the museum’s embroidery collection is the fact that artist biographies have been uncovered in 70 to 80 percent of the pieces. Painted with Thread is sponsored by Piecework: A Magazine for Needleworkers from Interweave Press.

“This exhibition considers embroidery as art,” says Paula Richter, Curator for Textiles and Costumes at the Peabody Essex Museum. “It looks at the individual pieces, delves into their artistic and cultural context, and decodes their deeper meanings.” There’s a tantalizing aspect of storytelling incorporated into this rich and expressive exhibition. It’s a process of discovery, she says. “Just when you think you know what embroidery is, it surprises you with new ideas.”

Ms. Richter says that the rich, tactile medium of embroidery is vastly appealing to practitioners. “You can hold it in your two hands. The design unfolds before you as you work. The colors are rich and the materials soft and soothing to the touch. Moreover, there’s a renewed interest in handcrafted items now, in reaction to technology and the Information Age. It’s real. You hold it in your hands. It’s a meditative and deeply meaningful form of expression.”