Finely embroidered with minute stitches or woven into shadow like patterns, hand-made white on white fabric is laborious to produce. It resists any expectations of gloriously colourful textiles but invites us instead to admire skilled techniques and textures that evoke tiny landscapes responsive to the play of light or subtle patterns against an almost transparent ground. From a distance, the detail of whitework can be almost invisible, but up close it is breathtaking, as delicate as the stitches of mice in Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester.
White has remained the preferred, if absent, ‘colour’ of the most sophisticated embroidered garments and household linens. Despite its apparent impracticality, white on white has never lost its appeal. Indeed, the need for servants to keep it pristine were undoubtedly a mark of social status; it could also be laundered without colours running.
Image: A muslin gown ca. 1800. Courtesy of the V&A.
In the eighteenth century, whitework became favoured across Europe and America as a cheaper alternative to hand-made lace. Its continued popularity meant that by the mid-nineteenth century more than 200,000 embroiderers, some as young as eight years old, were employed in embroidering ‘Ayrshire’ whitework in Scotland and Ireland alone. Worn on solemn religious occasions to suggest purity, used as church vestments and garments for baptisms, First Holy Communions and weddings, white on white garments could, when required, be intentionally revealing. Flimsy early nineteenth century muslin gowns, hand embellished underwear or the most audacious of contemporary wedding dresses can rather confound the notion of purity.
Over time, numerous styles of white embroidery on a white ground have evolved, in England, Scotland, Ireland and much of Europe including Friesland, Scandinavia, Switzerland, in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Germany, Spain, Portugal, especially Madeira, and Italy – even Sardinia has its particular stitches. Whitework techniques include counted, drawn and pulled thread work, shadow work and cutwork where the fabric is cut away in shapes and edged. The terms Ayrshire, Mountmellick, Richelieu (cutwork originating in Italy), Dresden, Schwalm, Hardanger, Helm, Hebedo and Appenzell indicate regional styles that have developed in precise and intricate local combinations of basic techniques and stitches. Appenzell in Switzerland still supplies the high fashion trade with its refined white embroidery, although very little is still made by hand.
Image: Examples of Appenzell embroidery, courtesy of antiquestyle.blogspot.com
Whitework has not been limited to the western world. Some of the finest traditions of white on white work come from the Indian subcontinent, whether the chikan embroidery work from Lucknow, or weaving with supplementary white wefts as in the jamdani of Undivided Bengal, now Bangladesh, and surprisingly, the somewhat similar pikb’il technique made some 16,000 kilometres away in Central Guatemala. In Mexico whitework embroidery was introduced and taught by Spanish nuns. In fact, whitework appears to be fairly universal, its origins hard to pinpoint, since stitches migrate with peoples, and yarn, needles and loom present common possibilities.
Although linen is also used in whitework, cotton is the linking ground. A globally diffuse plant, archaeological evidence indicates that different varieties of cotton have been domesticated since at least 3000 BC in Peru, Mexico, in the Indus Valley area of Pakistan and in Nubia (Sudan). Records of Indian cotton cultivation and conversion into cloth are later, probably 5th century BC, but India became a world leader in the export of raw cotton and finished cloth. What is extraordinary is the common ability of people to use very simple technology to spin exceptionally fine threads by hand, and weave them into almost transparent cotton fabrics that can be worked by embroiderers or brocaded in the loom.
Image: Chikankari from Bhairvis Chikan, who will be exhibiting at the Selvedge World Fair 2021
Indian chikan work (chikankari) relates to wider whitework embroidery styles such as Dresden and Ayrshire work but with its own repertoire of motifs and stitches. Although based on earlier embroidery traditions, it was refined in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, under the patronage of the Awadh court. Worked in tiny stitches on the finest cotton or muslin, chikankari in its most refined form was integrated into Mughal court dress. Historically however, its quality declined, inferior machine-made work debased the craft and exploitative practices became common. More recently, various initiatives have revived hand-made chikankari on a more ethical basis, projects that enable women – the majority of embroiderers – to support their families. One of these is Bhairvis Chikan, a co-operative founded by Mamta Varma, a native of Lucknow, in 1998. Bhairvis Chikan now employs and trains some 300 women artisans, as well as (mostly male) weavers, thappakars (block-makers), chhipi (printers) and dhobis (washermen), a traditional division of labour. To broaden the market for chikan, embroidery is now also worked on other Indian hand-woven fabrics besides muslin, but using traditional stitches in designs inspired by antique embroideries. These schemes perpetuate the traditions and skills of chikankari while giving women employment options and training, even if they are confined to the home.
Image: A weaver at Bengal Muslin
A different kind of white on white fabric weaving can have a similarly ethereal quality. Made in the area of Bengal now in Bangladesh, jamdani is not surface embroidery like chikan, but is muslin ‘embroidered’ in the loom with a supplementary weft, sometimes as fine as a shadow when the fabric is seen against the light. Historically, unbelievably fine yarns of 1000 count or more were used. After years of decline, attempts are being made to approach this quality today both by individuals and by Bengal Foundation and Bengal Muslin, both based in Dhaka. Weavers are learning to use the much finer yarns that are becoming available and have now worked with 400 count thread (200 x 200 per square inch of weave). Working with such fine thread is challenging and time consuming but fabrics of great beauty are now being produced again and Bengal Muslin is collaborating with attempts to grow the almost vanished variety of cotton historically used to make jamdani.
Image: Concepcion Poou Coy Tharin, who will be exhibiting at the Selvedge World Fair 2021
On the other side of the world, in the region around the city of Coban in central Guatemala, a similar technique is used to weave a cloth called pikb’il in the local Q’eqchy language, unique to the area. Pikb’il is worked on an individual backstrap loom rather than the two person pit loom used for weaving jamdani. Archaeological evidence suggests that similar translucent cloth was woven by indigenous Maya some 2000 years ago and it is their descendants that continue the tradition. A very fine cotton yarn is used, sometimes still made from Kekchi, a local variety of Gossypium Hirsutum. The warp thread is soaked in in corn starch before starting to weave to avoid breakage; jamdani warp threads are prepared with rice starch. Like jamdani weaving it is slow work. Concepcion Poou Coy Tharin, one of the few remaining practitioners, says it takes a month to weave a traditional blouse: ‘I build the design with each passing of the weft’. Most of the designs have traditional significance and stories behind them, ‘the hummingbird on the tobacco plant, the men on horses, pacaya leaves, the arches which represent the mountains and caves, and the stars are some of the most typical and traditional’ says Concepcion. Some 40 women practice pikb’il in her home village, as well as others in neighbouring communities, although some use the threads differently, twisting the yarn and skipping wefts, producing larger motifs. Some designs are taken from old white-on-white pikb’il designs in the textile collection at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology in New Mexico, others Concepcion has developed with her mother and her sister. ‘I get my cotton thread from a small shop in the city of Carcha, which is close to Coban. It is unpolished cotton, size 20/1 ply. I do not know where they get it from. The thread I use for the design is the same thread, just three threads together to make it thicker so the design shows up.’ The result, again, is like a shadow of white on the thinner white ground.
So the appeal of white on white continues, the skills for making it have survived, thanks yet again to the vision and persistence of dedicated individuals.
Written by Sonia Ashmore