Dress, Child's Victorian Whitework; Unknown maker; 1850-1860; WY.2019.2.2


Dress, Child's Victorian Whitework

About this object

Completely hand-stitched, this white cotton child’s dress is decorated with broderie anglaise-style eyelet embroidery on both the bodice and skirt. The back of the neckline has a drawstring band with a gathered tie. On the front of the bodice is a central insert of embroidery flanked by lengths of scalloped embroidery sewn to the insert and waistband but otherwise left loose, similar to a ruffle. Embroidery in an identical pattern decorates the hems of the sleeves. The bodice opens at the back and ties at the waist. The skirt gathers onto the waist and is heavily embroidered in broderie anglaise style, creating a scalloped hemline. The style is consistent with this being a boy's dress.

Unfortunately, we don't know very much about this beautiful embroidered dress. Perhaps future research will reveal its past, but it is worthwhile knowing something of the history behind whitework embroidery. It is also worth noting that every stitch in this dress has been made by hand. Satin stitch work is predominantly used for the floral designs, with button hole stitch used to finish edges and scallops, and the stiletto piercings. It is also worth noting the single tiny seam that joins the fabric of the skirt - so well executed and almost invisible so that it makes no impact at all on the embroidery.

The intricacy and delicacy of this work clearly demonstrates the skill of its makers, often working in poor light, and difficult conditions. From the 1820s onwards, Scottish women werefrequently employed as piece workers, in what would become a highly organised cottage industry. Outline designs were printed on cloth by Glasgow-based manufacturers, and each design was sent out with information on how long the embroiderer had to complete it and what rate they would be paid. Women worked in their own homes, fitting in their needlework with their many other duties, and embroidery often made a very substantial contribution to the family income. Indeed, many families may have found themselves totally dependent on their sewing abilities.

This was piecework, so speed was essential. Outlines and edgings would be completed by less experienced sewers, whereas needlepoint sections demanded the input of highly experienced embroiderers. Skills were passed from mother to daughter, with households often containing more than one sewer and even small children would be paid a penny a week for threading needles. A single hand could complete small items like collars, whereas more complex items such as dresses and Christening gowns would include the work of several women.

A range of factors led to the development of this beautiful form of white on white embroidery: improvements in the spinning and weaving of cotton and the availability of skilled weavers in Scotland at this time; the introduction of an embroidered lace which quickly became fashionable, and not least the skill of the girls and young women. By 1855 however, embroidery machines which could replicate this 'broderie anglaise' were introduced,.

Today textile historians continue the debate ... that such fine and painstaking work led to horrendous difficulties with eyesight and posture is well-documented. But the work was also considered preferable to that in an industrial setting, which later became the only option for many young women. We are very fortunate that we are still able to admire their skill, even if we should also wonder at the personal cost.


Unknown maker

Maker Role

Needle worker

Date Made




Place Made

Europe, United Kingdom, Scotland

Medium and Materials

organic, processed material, vegetal, fibre, cotton
organic, processed material, animal, animal product, shell, mother-of-pearl


h 670 mm x w 1040 mm

Subject and Association Keywords

Clothing and Accessories

Object Type


Object number


Copyright Licence  

Attribution (cc) Attribution (cc)

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