How a Dining Table Becomes Needlework

In the summer of 2018, I had the good fortune to see an exhibit at Winterthur, a historic museum specializing in the decorative arts in Delaware, titled “Dining By Design: Nature Displayed on the Dinner Table.”  While my main purpose that day was to enjoy a beautiful walk around the grounds and spend some time in the library (open to the public and filled with all sorts of books in the decorative arts, needlework, and lace worlds that interest me), I knew this was their major exhibit at the time and made sure to allow a bit of time to walk through.  I was in no way expecting to find inspiration for a needlework design there, but, as I have discovered, inspiration can be found in the most unlikely places.

The exhibit, according to Winterthur’s website, took “a fresh look at the history of dining and dinnerware from the 1600s onward and celebrate[d] how hosts and hostesses brought the natural world into their dining rooms. Foods were drawn from the bounty of nature, and dishes imitated shapes of animals, birds, fruit, and flowers or bore designs after such inspirations. Some patterns had special meaning, and many provide clues to the original owner’s background or social status.”

As I turned the corner into one particular area, I was completely struck dumb by a display of dishes mounted onto the wall:

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The accompanying information explained how this was a reproduction of the layout of dishes for a “Grand Table” as described by Elizabeth Raffald in her book, The Experienced English Housekeeper, first published in 1769.

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Why was I struck dumb?  Well, the symmetry of the layout just so appealed to my geometrical and mathematical brain.  I immediately saw the possibilities of turning that layout into a canvaswork design.  Add in the historical connection of this coming from a book 250 years old and I was hooked.

While I immediately thought that on that very day, it took many months, nearly a year, in fact, until I brought the idea to fruition.  After playing around with a number of different stitches and stretching my brain in different directions, I realized that recreating the dishes using one stitch, albeit with a number of variations, would be the way to go.  The Jessica stitch suited my needs perfectly.

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Depending on the overall shape (circle, oval, etc.) and depending on the starting stitch, the end result of the Jessica can look very different.  It can be very open (lots of space in the center) or very closed up (little space in the center).  You can see the number of variations I achieved in this design.  I aim to make my canvaswork designs (at least at this time) to be beginner level, and so I wanted to keep the materials simple and easily accessible.  I limited my palette to three colors and was pleased with the effect.

I called this pattern Jessica’s Dining Table, paying homage to both the stitch used and the source of the design.

The pattern is available in my Etsy store as a paper pattern here  and as a pdf pattern here.

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