Several years ago I featured Princess Charlotte’s bellflower court dress, a sumptuous creation that must have taken a boatload of seamstresses untold hours of work to complete. I had the privilege of viewing this fragile dress when it was on exhibit at the Museum of London, and I often wondered how the bell flowers (which were worked with silver thread and tiny glass beads) were made.
Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Needlework (1870) provides a glimpse. Although the illustrations are rough compared to the royal example, one begins to understand how time consuming this needlework was for the women who labored long hours in poor lighting conditions. The book describes the process for bluebells, which were embroidered in a raised satin stitch. The pieces were worked separately, then half of the embroidered piece was sewn onto an outlined embroidered shape on the fine fabric. This shape represented the inner part of the flower.
The first two illustrations from Beeton’s book show 1) the complete bluebell and 2) the inner part of the flower with the overcast outline.
The second illustration shows the raised outer part as a flat piece. This second embroidered piece was fastened in a three dimensional way onto the overcast outline. Then the excess material was carefully cut away without damaging the underlying fabric. (This job must have been tougher and more delicate with Princess Charlotte’s gauzy net dress.)
I recall clearly seeing that some of the bellflowers had been torn away or were missing – and wondered if someone had stepped on Princess Charlotte’s train, or if she had snagged the hem on something.