Two Book Reviews on Historical Needlework: French Women Workers and Fair Isle Knitting

The story of people who made historical needlework and the legacy of the cloth they left behind captivates our imagination. Here are two books, one that explores the lives of 18th-century French women workers and the other that captures the beauty of colorful Fair Isle knitwear, which were featured in the September/October 2009 and January/February 2009 issues of PieceWork, respectively.

historical needlework

Louder Than Words: Ways of Seeing Women Workers in Eighteenth-Century France
By Geraldine Sheridan
Lubbock, Texas: Texas Tech University Press, 2009. Hardbound, 256 pages, $55. ISBN 978-0-89672-622-2.

Using engravings from Diderot’s Encyclopédie (1762–1772) and Descriptions des arts et métiers published by the Académie Royale des Sciences between 1761 and 1788, coupled with meticulous research, Geraldine Sheridan provides a fascinating look at women at a specific point and place in time—a point and place in which women were excluded from many areas of employment by custom and by law. Five chapters cover work as diverse as cutting turf; sorting coal; fishing; making toys, nails, pins, and wigs; decorating objects; shopkeeping; spinning; winding warps for weaving (but not weaving); and covering thread with gold or silver. The section on the lives of most of the silk workers is compelling: the unimaginable living and working conditions, the tender age of many, the brutally hard work, the death rate, the paltry wages that they earned. The 180 images and the precise descriptions of how the women did the work put the reader right smack back into the eighteenth century. Without these women and their work, there would have been no French economy. This is a book to savor.

—Andy MacKenzie

historical needlework

Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting
By Alice Starmore
Mineola, New York: Dover, 2009. Softbound, 208 pages, $24.95. ISBN 978-0-486-47218-8.

At last, Alice Starmore’s seminal book, originally published in 1988, is back in this reprinted edition complete with revised supplier information, an updated biography of the author, and photographs of some of her recent work. You’ll find a meticulously researched and beautifully illustrated history of Scotland’s Fair Isle knitting; pattern charts; detail photographs in color; a substantial technique section with color illustrations that is almost like having a personal workshop with Alice; and fourteen projects with step-by-step instructions, each imbued with Alice’s signature style. Alice Starmore’s affection for and interest in Fair Isle knitting is contagious. If you are interested in stranded-color knitting, this is the book for you.

—Alexandra Eastman

Read 3 more great book reviews in our blog post “Three More Classic Books on Knitting Techniques from the British Isles.”


Find more about historical needlework in the pages of PieceWork!

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