Berlin Woolwork

Berlin woolwork refers to a system of transferring printed paper patterns for needlework designs on to canvas.  Hand painted on graph-like paper, the patterns were produced in Germany in the early 19th century.  Hence, needlework of this type came to be known as “Berlin woolwork.” 

More patience than skill was required to accomplish this type of of needlework, and by the mid-19th century it had become the most popular form in America.  Patterns for slippers, drawstring bags, rugs, and needlework pictures were stitched in profusion using wools with the soft colors of natural dyes.  

By the latter part of the 19th century, however, the sight of women stitching woolwork pictures in harsh colors of the new aniline chemical dyes was so ubiquitous that Mark Twain was provoked to remark, “...Washington Crossing the thunder-and-lightning crewels by one of the young ladies--work of art which would have made Washington hesitate about crossing, if he could have foreseen what advantage was going to be taken of it.”

Large Berlin woolwork pictures like the one above were often adapted from well-known paintings.  Biblical scenes were also a popular subject at the time, but are not particularly favored by collectors today.  Here in the United States, pictures of famous Americans and events were especially popular, and quality examples in good condition are among the most sought after by current collectors.

To learn more about American needlework I recommend Plain & Fancy:  American Women and Their Needlework, 1700-1850, by Susan Burrows Swan.