Rose Nichols’s Masterful Needlework

Bed Hangings
Materials: Wool thread on linen
Artist: Rose Standish Nichols
Date: Circa 1890

To see this object in the Nichols House Museum online collection, search for 1961.505.1a here:

Rose Nichols never stayed idle long. In addition to her professional work in garden design, she had several favorite leisure activities to fill her time. July’s post detailed Rose’s skill at woodworking, a hobby which may surprise some visitors, but Rose also excelled at needlework, which was a more “traditional” pursuit for young women in the nineteenth century. Rose studied needlework on her own as a young adult, but during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, many girls of the middle and upper classes in America learned stitching and embroidery as part of their early education and as an introduction to household work.[1]

They displayed their talents through embroidering their clothing[2] and in the decorative pieces they made, which could be used to ornament their homes. In the colonial period and into the 1800s, many young girls stitched samplers to demonstrate their literacy and moral education. Samplers commonly featured the alphabet, numbers (1-10), and/or a Bible verse and the maker’s name cross-stitched on canvas with silk thread.[3]

These crewel stitches, illustrated in a twentieth-century guide to crewel-work, show that Rose must have had keen eyes and nimble hands. This backstitch is a simple beginner stitch.
cretan leafcrop
Cretan Stitch, Leaf

As these young girls learned more complicated stitching, they moved on to crewelwork.[4] Crewel is a form of embroidery which typically uses wool thread on linen.[5] Many of the typical crewel stitches and design motifs were developed in England just after the reign of James I in the seventeenth century.[6] After the basic stitches, crewel stitches can be quite complicated, using the weight of the wool thread to create elaborate textured designs.[7] Crewelwork went in and out of fashion with decorative needleworkers over the next two hundred years, until the Victorians revived crewel stitching in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.[8] Bed hangings were a common household textile women embellished with crewelwork.[9]

Weaving Stitch

full viewAs a young woman, Rose Nichols hand-stitched the crewelwork on the bed hangings pictured here (right). These hangings decorate the four-poster bed in Rose’s room at the museum. As a professional garden designer and lifelong gardener, Rose loved to decorate with floral designs. The pattern she used for these hangings was inspired by a Queen Anne-period textile Rose saw at the Museum of Fine Art here in Boston.

flower detail
Detail of Rose’s crewelwork

samplercropLater in her life, Rose also stitched this sampler (left), on display in the parents’ bedroom at the museum. While one hundred years previously samplers were created by young girls to illustrate their education and status, by 1911 they had become sought after decorative items. This change was influenced by the Colonial Revival, an American decorative arts and cultural movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which shaped Rose’s taste in interior design.

As its name suggests, the Colonial Revival emphasized a return to the cultural values and design features associated with the American colonial era. During the age of booming industry in the United States, supporters of the Colonial Revival believed in the value of the pre-industrial lifestyle, including making things by hand, like embroidery pieces.[10] Original colonial samplers became collectibles, and in the early 1900s, sampler stitching became a leisure activity for middle-class women. Popular women’s magazines printed many pages of patterns for women to replicate.[11] Rose based her 1911 sampler on a Spanish sampler made by Rosalia Escolar in 1842. The 1842 original is in the textile collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

To see Rose’s bed hangings and sampler, and many more examples of her needlework, please visit us at the Nichols House! To participate in our Community Embroidery Project based on Rose’s work, visit the museum after September 20.

Crewel stitch examples from Pleasures of Crewel: A book of elementary-to-elegant stitches & new embroidery designs by Jo Springer (New York: Golden Press, 1972).

By Collins Warren, Summer 2015 Intern

[1] Candace Wheeler, The Development of Embroidery in America (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1921), 53; Beverly Gordon, “Spinning Wheels, Samplers, and the Modern Priscilla: The Images and Paradoxes of Colonial Revival Needlework,” Winterthur Portfolio 33, no. 2/3 (1998): 165.
[2] Ibid., 45.
[3] Ibid., 53-54.
[4] Ibid., 48.
[5] Jo Springer, Pleasures of Crewel: A Book of Elementary-to-Elegant Stitches & New Embroidery Designs (New York: Golden Press, 1972), 1-2.
[6] Ibid., 7.
[7] Ibid., 30.
[8] Ibid., 9.
[9] Gordon, “Spinning Wheels,” 165.
[10] Ibid., 170.
[11] Ibid., 175-176.


Author: Nichols House Museum

The Nichols House Museum's mission is: To preserve and interpret the 1804 townhouse that was from 1885 until 1960 the home of Rose Standish Nichols, landscape gardener, suffragist and pacifist. The house was built by Jonathan Mason and is attributed to Charles Bulfinch. The museum educates visitors by providing a unique glimpse into the domestic life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries on Boston's historic Beacon Hill.