Victorian Fish-Scale Embroidery

Those Weird Victorians Embroidered with What?

Ever the industrious and thrifty crafters, Victorians found a use for almost everything. Case in point: Victorian fish-scale embroidery. Yes, gentle readers, Victorians embellished their embroidery with fish scales from carp, shad, perch, and goldfish. Sewn amongst the ribbon and thread, fish scales added . . . well, let’s just say that they added something different to be sure.

victorian-fish-scale-embroidery: goldfish

Goldfish. Illustration (a chromolithograph after Sherman Denton) depicts a goldfish (Carassious auratus). Late 19th or early 20th century. Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images.

Having trouble fathoming that this was indeed a thing? Read this excerpt from the July 17, 1886, issue of Harper’s Bazaar:

  • Wash [the fish scales] carefully as soon as scraped off, using cold water and soap lather for the purpose. . . .[T]he thin membrane rolls up, only adhering at one side of each scale. . . . Do not dry the scales in masses, but taking each one singly, removing every particle of membrane, and folding sheets of unprinted newspaper into a large book, place them between the sheets. . . .[W]hile damp a weight must be placed on the closed leaves to prevent curling while drying. . . .As each is removed from the paper, with either a pin or needle make two small holes at the base; and about an eighth of an inch apart. . . .Put these fine, medium sized scales, gathered during June, in a box and wait patiently, if you can for the large ones of the carp, which do not appear until some time in September.
victorian-fish-scale-embroidery: Fancy dress costume for the element WaterFancy dress costume for the element Water

Fancy dress costume for the element Water, dress embroidered with fish and shells, headdress with lobster and seaweed, bodice of scallops. Handcolored lithograph after a design by Leon Sault from L’Art du Travestissement (The Art of Fancy Dress), Paris. Circa 1880. Sault was a theatre and opera designer and luxury fashion magazine publisher. Photo by Florilegius/SSPL/Getty Images. element Water, dress embroidered with fish and shells, headdress with lobster and seaweed, bodice of scallops. Handcoloured lithograph after a design by Leon Sault from L’Art du Travestissement (The Art of Fancy Dress), Paris, c.1880. Sault was a theatre and opera designer and luxury fashion magazine publisher. (Photo by Florilegius/SSPL/Getty Images)

In “Sew Fishy: The Use of Fish Scales in Victorian Embroidery,” from PieceWork’s July/August 2011 issue, Erin Gilday explains, “Fish-scale embroideries typically were worked on dark shades of velvet, velveteen, plush, or silk to contrast with the luminosity of the scales. Flowers, butterflies, and hummingbirds were common subjects.”

The next time my dear husband goes fishing—I think I will request that he save the scales. You never know; this could again become the next hip DIY trend. Bedazzle your embroidery with fish scales inspired by those weird Victorians.

—Elizabeth


Learn more about all types of embroidery from the pages of PieceWork!

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.