The Rise and Fall of the Tambour Hook

embroidered flower
Detail of chain stitch embroidery on woman’s robe a l’anglais – Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I have always been interested in the history of embroidery, but also in the history of embroiderers. The idea of an embroiderer seems to vary between the lady of leisure and the sweated labourer – but there were many individuals in between. We know that many individuals throughout history have used embroidery as a creative outlet (May Morris), to support their mental health (Lorina Bulmer), even to send subversive messages (Mary Queen of Scots). Many more used embroidery to earn a living. It is the latter that I explored when I researched for the EAST exhibition, Power of Stitch, currently on display at the Babylon Gallery, Ely, Cambridgeshire, UK.

I was particularly interested to learn more about a very specific technique – tambour work. My interest in tambour work had come about because of my interest in the London Foundling Hospital – and particularly because from the mid-1760s onwards a large number of girls were employed as tambour workers. It is not a very common technique now, except perhaps in couture work, but is basically chain stitch made with a hook rather than a needle. The word tambour comes from the drum like frame it is worked on – though not all hooked embroidery needs a frame. Histories on tambour work in Britain are often quite vague stating that it arrived as a technique in London in the mid-1760s. This got me thinking – why then, and was this really a new invention?

©Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum

I soon discovered that tambour embroidery has an extensive history east of Europe – so old that no one really knows when it began. Certainly there are examples of very ancient embroideries worked in chain stitch across the globe – worked with a hook though not necessarily with the tambour frame that gives the technique its name. (Tambour comes from the French for drum, referring to the drum like frame the stitch can be worked on.) It certainly arrived in Switzerland and France long before it arrived in England – the Swiss seemed to think it came from Turkey, the French from China. Madame Pompadour, (official mistress of King Louis XV) was so keen on tambour work that it was often known as Pompadour stitch in France.

London newspapers started advertising the technique as ‘new’ in February 1765. A Madame Pignerolle was keen to promote it as a speedy technique suitable for young ladies and originating in France. Equally there seemed to be a craze in Britain for items embroidered with this technique. No wonder then that some people saw an opportunity to make a business of supplying items embroidered with tambour work – and not all of them believed in looking after their workers.

In my work for Power of Stitch I remember Madame Pignerolle who seems to have died a very wealthy woman – though I did wonder if that was just because she was one of the first to bring tambour work to London as the new craze began or whether there was another reason.

Mme Pignerolle – Power of Stitch

Then my second piece remembers about thirty foundlings who stayed together in a Mr Ehrilholtzer’s workshop. He seemed quite an enlightened apprentice master, originally from Switzerland, and many of the girls continued to stay in his employment once their apprenticeships had ended. Each girl is represented by a heart – their name, year of birth and year they started their apprenticeship is stitched on one side; on the other their number and an image of a token – small items of paper, fabric or sometimes objects left with infants on admission so they could be reclaimed. The fabrics I used represent the plain, coarse fabric the girls themselves would probably wear and the embroidered cottons worn by the fashionable women of the time. Some of the designs are very similar to those worked in tambour work. I might add that the fabrics I used are reproductions of actual eighteenth century designs and came from my good friend Angela, of Burnley and Trowbridge.

Felix’s Foundlings – Power of Stitch

Finally, a piece to remember those who were not so lucky as the foundling girls. Frances Glover and Elizabeth Wheeler were both in their twenties when they were unable to get work – they had been trained as tambour work but either the craze for tambour embroidered items had ended or the money they were paid to do this work was uneconomical. It was the cause of their tragic end.

Buried at the Crossroads – Power of Stitch

There was so much that came out of my research that I am really pleased to be talking about it at the Babylon Gallery next week. My talk will consist of a brief history of tambour embroidery, why I think it came to London in 1765, the embroiderers whose lives the stitch was impacted by, and also the implications of fashionable crazes. Something that is relevant today as it was in the eighteenth century.

I hope you will be able to join me on Monday 13th June 2022 at 7pm when I am going to be sharing the story behind the work and the Power of Stitch on people’s lives. For more information and how to book visit the Babylon Gallery website. Glass of wine/soft drink is included in the admission price of £5 and there will be an opportunity to ask questions.

Or you may wish to join myself and fellow EASTie at a workshop about textiles and memory called ‘Memento vitae’ – details for this are also found on the Babylon Gallery website.


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