Berlin Woolwork

A forgotten story from 19th century Berlin

Berlin Woolwork, discovering old Berlin

Three years ago, I came across embroidery patterns from 19th century Berlin. It was an exciting sense of discovering something beautiful and forgotten by contemporary Berlin, although deserving to be remembered.

I started searching for information about these patterns and found that there were few popular studies or websites in the German language, and few projects referring to these designs. It was only in English that I came across studies, websites and also modern designs using Berlin Work schemes. One of the first books that I came across was written by an Italian artist and researcher Raffaella Serena, entitled Berlin Work, Patterns and Embroidery of the 19th Century. Eventually I fund more information in the library of the Fine Arts Museum in Berlin and was privileged to see the surviving originals of the 19th century Berlin Woolwork charts housed there. It was a delightful experience, looking at the colourful designs that had survived over 200 years. Another interesting encounter was the publication Rosen, Tulpen, Nelken …: Stickvorlagen des 19. Jahrhunderts aus Deutschland und Österreich written by Heidi Müller, published in 1977 by the Ethnographic Museum in Berlin.
Intrigued by the centuries-old patterns, I decided to go a step further and re-create some of them. I was lucky to find a wonderful craftswoman who helped me to reproduce several designs. The embroiderer, Ms. Malgorzata Wrobel lives in Lowicz in central Poland, a place where folk arts and crafts have survived until today.

The 19th century Berlin was a global centre of wool industry. The spinning, dyeing weaving and wool processing industries gave work to thousands of workers. It was in Berlin that the innovation of embroidery charts came into being, providing additional work for large masses of women not only in the manufactures creating these worldwide popular products, but also in the making and sale of finished wool products.

In year 1804 the publishing house of Mr A. Phillipson in Berlin issued a collection of embroidery patterns with 12 different motifs on checked paper. The designs were printed in black and then coloured by hand. The embroidery charts specified the number of stitches per row and colours of a woolen threads to be used. These early Berlin Woolwork (or Berlin Work) embroidery charts were published as single sheets. The designs were created to be transferred onto items of clothing, handbags, shoes, furnishings or as stand-alone works of art in the style of “needle painting”. With such a detailed instruction, it was no longer necessary to draw a detailed pattern on the fabric, which allowed not only
specialists from aristocratic manufactures but also talented amateurs to create beautiful items at home. The invention, therefore, contributed to the financial emancipation of women.

Berlin Woolwork charts

Interestingly, it turned out that the ladies of the upper classes, who had basically more time to earn the “needle – money”, were competitors for the working -class women. Handicrafts became next to a luxury hobby and a way of bringing up girls, also a way of earning money from home. These ladies, who had not previously worked or had done so secretly as employment was not in a good tone and certainly not work outside the home, often worked to finance the expensive military careers of their husbands.

Soon there were more than 30 publishers producing and selling Berlin Woolwork charts. Fourteen thousand patterns were exported from Berlin throughout Europe and the world. Berlin Woolwork became popular worldwide with the 1851 World’s Fair and the appearances in women’s magazines. It became virtually synonymous with embroidery designs.

The leitmotif of Berlin embroideries was flowers, especially roses. Other motifs include stylised animals, landscapes, scenes from everyday life, children, architecture and religious themes. Several motifs were taken from popular paintings. The designs changed with time and were influenced by fashions and foreign elements, e.g. from the Far East, through world exhibitions. Some manufacturers, under the criticism, started to search for authentic native ancient and local folk motifs as well as popular motifs from the history of art.

Similar business models appeared soon in other countries. The needle – picture of the moth, which can be seen on the wall in our gallery, was reproduced based on the Sajou Company’s design from Paris. The above chart with butterflies was published by L. W. Wittich, who was one of the most important producers of hand-coloured embroidery patterns in the 19th century Berlin. H. F. Müller, whose two bird compositions you can see in this exhibition, was a German who took over the publishing house in Vienna. His products were characterised by great finesse and were repeatedly awarded at international exhibitions.

At the end of the 1880s the demand for Berlin woolen goods declined, mainly due to changing tastes. In Berlin they were completely forgotten. However, the patterns have survived in the world of fashion.