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Discovering Old Berlin

Berlin Woolwork or Berlin Work (Berlin wool embroidery)

Discovering crafts from 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.

 From this book and other texts, I learned that In 1804, Mr Phillipson’s publishing house in Berlin launched its own collection of embroidery patterns with 12 different hand-coloured motifs on millimetre paper. A new invention – an embroidery pattern that specified each colour and the colour of the velvet threads. The first Berlin Woolwork (or Berlin Work) embroidery patterns were printed in black and white on square paper, then hand-coloured and published as single sheets. The patterns were created to be transferred onto various garments and furniture or as stand-alone works of art in the style of needle painting. The innovation was that from then on it was no longer necessary to draw the motifs yourself and transfer them onto fabric. This enabled not only specialists from aristocratic manufactories, but also talented amateurs to create beautiful designs. From then on, exclusive fabrics could be produced not only in aristocratic manufactories, but also in private homes. This was an important moment in the history of the textile industry and women’s finances in Berlin, a city that was an important centre for weaving and wool processing.

Soon there were more than 30 publishers and companies producing and selling embroidery designs in Berlin. Fourteen thousand patterns designed by German designers were also exported throughout Europe and the world. The patterns appeared in women’s magazines and ‚Berlin Work‘ became fashionable all over the world. In the UK, Berlin Woolwork became popular with the 1851 World’s Fair and the appearance of women’s magazines.  Berlin Woolwork became virtually synonymous with embroidery designs.

Similar publishing and business models appeared in other countries, such as the Sajou company in Paris, whose Motte design can be seen on the wall of our living room.

At the end of the 1880s, demand for Berlin woollen goods declined, mainly due to changing tastes. They were completely forgotten in Berlin.

However, the patterns have survived in global fashion to this day. Today, if you look for information about Berlin embroidery patterns on the Internet, you have to type in English or Russian. It is very difficult to find anything in German.

The history of Berlin embroidery should be seen in the context of the emerging feminism and financial independence of women, the history of textile design and the history of Berlin.  It is one of the many innovations that Berlin exported to the world, even if it is not remembered today.

Finally, I made an appointment to visit the Bibliothek of the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin to see the surviving originals of the 19th century Berlin Woolwork charts housed there. It was a delightful experience, looking at the wonderful, colourful patterns that had survived over 200 years. Designs of plants, animals, people and architecture for different purposes, for example for covering furniture, slippers, handbags or everyday household items, as well as needle-painted pictures.

I decided to find an artist who could help me to reproduce some of the designs, which I found during my research. I decided to go to Lowicz in central Poland, a place where folk arts and crafts have survived until today. This is how I found embroiderer for this project, Ms. Malgorzata Wrobel.