History of the tambour frame

30/06/2020

This is the second article written by Bénédicte Meffre on embroidery frames. She writes a fascinating blog (in French), with a wealth of information on the history of embroidery. Here is the first article – translated in English.

Research and text by Bénédicte Meffre
Translated from French by Claire de Pourtalès

Embroidery hoop, 1790-1800, Boston – app. 40 x 55 x 38 cm / Los Angeles County Museum of Art © LACMA

After researching the first embroidery frames used to hold a fabric to be embroidered, we are now looking at the tambour hoops that came after them. A tambour hoop (note: tambour is a French word meaning drum) is a circular wooden frame generally made of 2 rings that fit into each other with the fabric in between. This hoop has then the same function than the regular embroidery frame: to tighten the fabric. This article will follow its arrival in Europe and how it was used.
Once again, we will use books, paintings and work of art from the past. We will also study embroidered pieces of the past and the evolution of the techniques to see if this can provide information on how the tambour was used through time.

The first descriptions of a tambour hoop are found in two books from the 18th century. One is the Encyclopédie by Diderot, the other The Art of the Embroiderer, by M. de Saint-Aubin.


The art of the embroiderer, M. de Saint-Aubin, 1770

The art of the embroiderer, M. de Saint-Aubin, 1770

From this text, we understand that this special frame came with the introduction of the hook in embroidery, which came from China [1]. M. de Saint-Aubin writes in 1770 and mentions this arrival from 10 years before, around 1760. We see that the tambour has only one ring, and is put on the knee of the worker. To hold the fabric, you use a leather strap around the ring. From this tambour on foot, it is not possible to see the mechanism that tighten the fabric as it is covered by a cloth that holds any extra embroidered fabric in place [2].

The Encyclopédie also presents an article on tambour frame. It is linked to the hook technique and the chain stitch.

Tambour – It is a circular frame where a fabric is hold and tighten, through a strap over a ring or 2 rings fitting into each other. The light fabric is then stitched using a special needle mounted on a handle. The stitch used is called Chain stitch and is made with pure silk thread, or silk thread covered with silver or gold. This hook allows an amazing speed and neatness. With this single stitch all sorts of designs can be created, leaves, flowers, and all sorts of nice arrangements of motifs nice to look at, to embellish dresses and all sort of fabrics. See our plates for the details of the needle, the frame and how to use them – they will provide more information that we can say.

The embroiderer, Encyclopédie, Diderot © ARTFL Encyclopédie

The Encyclopédie describes both systems, the one using a strap and the one using 2 rings. It also explains how to stitch a chain stitch with the hook. The plate shows the tambour, as well as the detail of the stitch.
The oldest images of a tambour hoop that I could find also date from the same period. Here are some examples. It is obvious that in each image, the stitcher holds a hook, not a needle.

Madame la comtesse de Chevreuse, drawing by Louis de Carmontelle, 1758 © Musée de Chantilly

What about the embroideries themselves? We saw that the introduction of the tambour hoop was closely related to the chain stitch made with a hook. During the 18th century, we see this stitch becoming a favorite for embellishing clothes. The motifs tend to change too.

Gail Marsh in her book  18th Century Embroidery Techniques writes a list of visual aspects that tells if the chain stitch was made with a hook or a needle:
– If the lines stop sharply, this is more often the work of a needle
– Changes of direction: with a needle they are sharper and with a hook, smoother
– The way to end a line or an angle differs
– On the back, a work with a hook is more regular and straight.

Gail Marsh thinks that hook embroideries were rare before 1760 but by the years 1870-1880, they became very popular.

The Fair Lady working Tambour, Carington Bowles, c. 1766-1784 / 2010,7081.1018 © British Museum

If the tambour frame arrived in Europe in the 18th century with the hook technique, when will it be used to work with other techniques, either professionally or at home?
This is a difficult question. When looking at illustrations of embroidery from the 18-19th centuries, and when we can identify the technique used [3], it seems that the tambour frames were only used with a hook.

The Ladies Waldegrave, Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1780 /NG2171 © National Galleries Scotland

Until the 1870s, it seems that the most popular technique for home embroidery was Berlin Work (canvas work, or Petit Point). The number of patterns available, either from shops or from magazines (like La Mode Illustrée) is staggering. And for this technique, a tambour frame is not the easier option, mainly because of the heavy fabric used.

Quote from La Mode Illustrée, n°6, February 4th, 1860: « Despite the large variety of techniques available to them, crochet, filet, etc., with all the possible new combinations they offer, women still prefer canvas work; it is used as a favorite hobby and maybe it is the only technique that is used for its own pleasure rather than for its results.
Even though many can appreciate the beautiful works made with this simple technique that provide beauty and life to a home. »

Here we can see that canvas work was used both to pass the time and to decorate the home. That might explain why in so many portraits of this time we see women working on square frames, known as Tapestry frame, rather than on tambour.

Woman with an embroidery frame, 19th century, Tito Agujari © Raccolta Musei Ciuici, Trieste

To discover how the frames have changed, we should have a look at white work embroidery, with all its variations. At the beginning of the 19th century, many places were known for their quality work with this technique: in the Vosges (Fontenoy-le-Château), in Switzerland (Appenzell county), in Scotland (Glasgow). Little by little these techniques will come into the privacy of homes [4]. But this technique doesn’t require a frame and provide little help for our study, except when it comes to fashion. One anecdote provides some evidence that tambour frames were used at home with other techniques than the hook. In Scotland, around the years 1815-1820, the workshops of Mrs Jamieson of Ayr had to adapt to the demand for new techniques. The workers were equipped with tambour and hook, and it seems a waste to provide new tools with the new technique. So most of the stitchers might have chosen to work white embroidery stitches with those tools.

Lastly, in 1886, Thérèse de Dillmont, in her famous book, The Complete Encyclopedia of Needlework, writes that tambour frames were the most used frames at home.

So, through less than a century, without making any special noise, this new frame has been adopted in the homes of most people. In professional workshops, the squared frames are still used for practical reasons.

You can find here my Pinterest board on historical embroidery frames and tambour hoops.

The complete Encyclopedia of Needlework, Thérèse de Dillmont, 1886

Notes
[1] The English still use the word Tambour work to describe an embroidery made with the hook technique
[2] When working a large piece, it is often necessary to hold the extra fabric while stitching another part in order to avoid stitching them together, or to dirty it.
[3] Indications: hook handle, thread reels under the tambour, on a spool, hands positions, etc.
[4] Once more in La Mode Illustrée, beside the regular patterns for canvas work, the most regularly found technique is the White work (with all its particular variations)

Le contenu de ce site est accessible gratuitement et n’est pas modifié par de la publicité. Ce travail prend du temps et pour être sûre de pouvoir continuer à faire connaitre nos artistes et l’art de la broderie, j’ai besoin d’un peu d’aide. Si une fois à l’occasion vous pouvez faire un petit don, je vous en serai très reconnaissante! Merci! Claire

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