Victorian-Era Crafts That Are Earning Their Comeback
Try your hand at embroidery, flower-pressing, or letter writing with wax seals and Dresden foil die cuts.
Before Martha herself, you might say that the Victorian lady was the original do-it-yourselfer. Her home was decorated by her capable hands; her clothing, if not hand-sewn, was often embellished by her skillful embroidery. But while we fondly imagine her sitting in her parlor with a basket of needlework, printed magazines at the time—that is, the 63-year period from 1837 to 1901 that marked the reign of England's Queen Victoria—envisioned the Victorian woman as being capable of so much more than that: she was apt at wood-carving, metalworking, sculpting, and diatom arranging.
While some of these hobbies tended to skew into the oddly curious (shell collecting and seaweed scrapbooking) or even the macabre ("hairwork" also known as memorialized art from human hair), it's the more innocuous craft techniques like needlework, letter writing, natural dyeing, and others that have had a special appeal to our editors over the years and informed our projects, especially after a life collectively lived in quarantine.
The Victorians were famously sentimental and without round-the-clock entertainment, they made due with what they had at home to occupy themselves. In their honor, try your hand at one of these handicrafts from another era.
Tending and mending was the Victorian's specialty, particularly clothes and fabrics. Embroidery as a form of needlework has so many techniques worth trying—whitework, in which the stitching is the same color as the fabric such as the traditional white linen; crewelwork, in which the stitching is done with wool thread on linen twill; or ribbon embroidery, in which shiny satin ribbons are used to create the appearance of blooming bouquets. If you're new to needle and thread, purchase an embroidery kit for beginners in any one of these styles.
Before the bottled kind was readily available, dyes could be found out in the garden. Plants like birch, tickseed, yarrow and marsh marigold as well as berries all make a rainbow of colors. Vegetables from your kitchen can be used, too: cabbage, blueberries, spices like turmeric, even scraps like onion skins and avocado pits.
Nature is in the habit of offering up ready-made artwork: The flowers in your garden, the leaves in the forest, or ferns growing roadside. Using them in an art collection is as easy as gathering and pressing them, and the Victorians were fond of doing just that. In botanical collections of that era, plants of all kinds were gathered to aid scientific investigation, a practice botanists still use today to create herbariums—organized collections of preserved plant specimens. Herbariums can last hundreds of years, the specimens providing amore accurate record than the most state-of-the-art camera. Today, you can use dried flowers, leaves, and seaweed to create sunprints, scrapbooks, giftable heirlooms like our tray pictured above, or simply a framed work of art.
The Victorians created beautiful mosaics and artful objects using common, everyday items such as moss, pinecones, bits of wood and paper, and—if they lived near a shoreline—shells. Shellwork, as it was called, might take the form of encrusted picture frames, light fixtures such as our wall sconce pictured above, or decorative trinket boxes. They might even include other foraged finds like dried seaweed, moss, and coral.
Paper Art and Letter Writing by Hand
Of course, putting pen to paper has been practiced through the centuries, but as with all other things, the Victorians left a special touch to their correspondences—namely in their choice of paper, signature calligraphy, and embellishments like form of wax seals and Dresdens. A custom wax seal could be stamped displaying one's monogram, family crest, or another motif. Dresdens were die cut paper images that collected in Victorian times by children and adults, and then pasted into scrapbooks or used in embellishing ornaments, gift packages, greeting cards, or even holiday décor.