While writing this post about March and our Swatch of the Month, I mentioned the Encyclopedia of Needlework by Thérèse de Dillmont which I am currently reading in preparation for a new book we are writing (yes, another book) on the tools of handwork. I became curious about the life of Thérèse de Dillmont who so meticulously documented the types and processes of handwork in the 1880s. I did a Google search and fell into a rabbit hole of handwork and feminist backlash. I’m still working my way out of this hole but I wanted to show you how a sewing needle or a spool of thread can take you from honored hobby to exercising naked in the fresh air to the feminist act of running a business.

From Wikipedia:

Thérèse de Dillmont (10 October 1846 – 22 May 1890) was an Austrian needleworker and writer. Dillmont’s Encyclopedia of Needlework (1886) has been translated into 17 languages.[1] She owned a string of shops in European capitals and she was “one of the most important pioneers in the international and multicultural enterprise of hobby needlework in the late nineteenth century”.[2]

That last sentence struck me, …”one of the most important pioneers in the international and multicultural enterprise of hobby needlework in the late nineteenth century”.

So, I followed citation #2 to this page in a chapter titled “The Hedonizing Marketplace” in a book titled Hedonizing Technologies: Paths to Pleasure in Hobbies and Leisure by Rachel P. Maines (who by-the-way also wrote The Technology of Orgasm).

Scanning the page quickly, I was looking for the words: multicultural enterprise of hobby needle work but found this first:

“Feminist and social critic Lorine Pruette (b. 1896) also disapproved of hedonized needlework, writing in 1924 that she would have preferred to see girls and women exercising in the fresh air, preferably in the nude: ‘Mary Ann of the twentieth century knits through interminable miles of colored wool and fills her house with crocheted and embroidered atrocities, just as her Polynesian sister flashes her brown body through the warm seas; the one spoils her eyes in the preparation of a beaded bag, while the other gathers hibiscus flowers to deck her dark hair.”

So ladies, put down your needles, don your birthday suit and get some air…

Paul Gauguin, I Raro te Oviri, 1891, Dallas Museum of Art*

I love this…but I also love how Maines continues on a more serious note:

“Feminist critics of needlework in this period were apparently oblivious to or uninterested in the opportunities that needlework and other crafts were creating for women as designers, and as authors and/or editors of hobby crafts publications. Turn–of-the-century women who benefited from the hedonization of needlework were aware of the trend as an advantage to themselves and their dependents, as articles in crafts magazines amply document, even in articles on plain work for pay.

One of the most prominent pioneers in the international and multicultural enterprise of hobby needle work in the late nineteenth century was the Viennese author and needleworker Thérèse de Dillmont (1846-90) of Dollfus-Meig et Cie. (DMC), and Alsatian-French textile firm established in 1746 in Mulhouse to produce hand-painted fabrics, which is still producing and selling craft yarns and thread at this writing. Dillmont’s name appeared on more than a hundred publications in seventeen languages after 1870: DMC continued to issue titles after her death under the imprimatur of her niece, reportedly (though implausibly) also named Thérèse de Dillmont. The elder Dillmont’s most famous work, known in English as the Complete Encyclopedia of Needlework, is still in print and remains one of the most comprehensive practical treatments of the needle arts.”

I’m fascinated; and I’ve added Hedonizing Technologies: Paths to Pleasure in Hobbies and Leisure by Rachel P. Maine to my reading list.

*It is interesting to note that Paul Gauguin whose paintings of Tahiti often featured a “brown body through the warm seas” was discovered to be a “sadist who battered his wife, exploited his friends and lied to the world about the erotic Eden he claimed to have discovered…”  And that all of this was playing out about the same time that Thérèse de Dillmont was quietly building her business(es) and publishing the Encyclopedia of Needlework.


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  1. mathurine

    The encyclopedia of Thérèse de Dillmont is stillpublished by DMC here in France, my grandmothers had one , I read it days after days , and it was the first book of sewing, knitting, embroidery I bought when I had my children, I bought this book and a sewing basket box with red fabric. It was twenty years ago and there are two of them on my work desk :-).

  2. Karin

    Oh wow! How interesting! I checked the iBooks store to see if there is a downloadable version of the encyclopedia – and sure enough not only is it available but it is also free! I started to read the first few pages and came across this: ““What is the use of describing all the old well-known stitches, when machines have so nearly superseded the slower process of hand-sewing? To this our reply is that, of all kinds of needlework, Plain Sewing needs to be most thoroughly learned, as being the foundation of all.” Truer words have never been spoken!
    Thank you for pointing out this excellent resource!

  3. marthabilski

    My first ever book about sewing was called the encycopedia of needlework. It was the 70’s and I don’t know if it was the same one but it was the cornerstone of a lifetime of collecting craft books, including the Alabama Chanin books. hmmmm I wonder if I still have it.
    I have been known to say that the creation of textiles marks the beginning of civilization. Shelter is one of the conditions of survival and clothes are part of shelter.
    Anyway I am really looking forward to the release of your new book. I have preordered!

    1. Doris Hale

      Beyond the Pilgrims Families Genealogy web pages online and States’ historic pages,my googlebooks advanced searches of ‘1600-1880 full view’ in Early Amer historic books on Googlebooks, I too sought stmts along your lines: early settlers thoughts and practice beyond fiber crafts as survival. The nearest I found was a first settlers Rhode Island account of a general consensus the ‘hand saw’ was a man’s best survival tool, and for women it was an ‘S hook’ needed for hanging cookpots, hunted carcasses, hshld taskwork, etc. But beyond the needle, spindle, spin wheel, I haven’t (yet) found a specific needlework tool highlighted. Funny TdD’s apology. Recent years saw child psychology attempt removing hand printing from So CA schools as ‘its obsolete due to computer technology’. Thank God humanity thought better!

  4. Sue Whelan

    Oh, that poor woman who couldn’t appreciate the beauty of simple crafts, exquisitely executed – what she missed! Love Therese and love am looking forward to the new AC book. Like you, Natalie, I tend to get lost following footnotes but a it’s a blessing now that I no longer have to do it at the library . Few people live up to the image they present tp the outer world. Self-integration is a lifetime journey but it’s an enthralling one if you’re willing to face the process.
    I took your Craftsy class and can’t recommend it highly enough. Illness has prevented me from sewing this past year but once I’m well, I can’t wait to begin. Thank you for sharing your talent with us.

  5. Doris Hale

    TdD worked under strict contracts as did occur in those days in that industry. Her achievement in needlework’s industry is to be respected by all members of guilds such as IOLI, BLEN, etc. Creativity and industry for flourishing in economy, trade, , and personal fulfillments – a potent mixing of humanity’s choices and capabilities. A needlecraft artisan hero I greatly admire today is Nancy.

  6. Ann Krieg

    A dear friend, Jeanne, just recently introduced me to Therese de Dillmont and her book Encyclopedia of Needlework! (Of course while researching her further, your post popped up.)
    Jeanne has been referencing this book for years and I was so enthralled, I had to obtain my own copy.
    Thank you for the entertaining read and sharing some of your own findings. Very fun… interesting.