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Embroidered slippers

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There has been much interest recently in the embroidered slippers, with a connection to Michael Collins, that are in the collection of the National Museum of Ireland, in Dublin.  The textiles collection at the Ulster Folk Museum has a small collection of needlework samples, and finished slippers, worked in similar style.  This short blog explains the background to this type of needlework and the processes involved in making such slippers, from start to finish.

Image: Embroidered slipper front, ready for making-up. Wool on canvas, c.1870.
Embroidered slipper front, ready for making-up. Wool on canvas, c.1870.

The type of embroidery most often used to make this kind of footwear was known as ‘Berlin wool work’. It was first introduced in the early 1800s but became most popular after the 1840s due to a combination of commercially printed patterns for embroidery on canvas, and new ranges of brightly coloured wools for needlework. The Saxony region of Germany produced wool from Merino sheep, with fibres that were soft and could be easily spun into yarn that readily absorbed the colourfast, bright aniline dyes for textiles. Many of these dye works were centred in and around Berlin, as were many of the print works for the embroidery patterns, and so the name ‘Berlin’ became forever associated with this needlework.

Image: Embroidered slipper front. Wool on canvas, with bead details, c.1870.
Embroidered slipper front. Wool on canvas, with bead details, c.1870.

At first patterns were hand painted onto squared paper, with each square representing a stitch. Berlin wool work was usually worked in tent stitch, sometimes cross stitch, and occasionally with the added embellishment of beads. Canvas fabric in an open weave provided a strong base for the work and a grid which made the printed pattern easy to follow. From the mid-1850s onwards the patterns were commercially printed in huge quantities and sold widely across Europe and the USA.  Patterns could be purchased individually and the range on offer included those for home furnishings, bags, smoking caps, and slipper kits. Images ranged from tight geometric designs to naturalistic depictions of flowers and animals. The mass production of the patterns and wools fuelled the vast appetite, among the middle classes of the mid to late 1800s, for hobby needlework.

Image: This embroidery pattern was sold in the 1860s by Browns’ of High Street in Belfast. At the time the establishment was a woollen warehouse that also sold needlework supplies and dress accessories.
This embroidery pattern was sold in the 1860s by Browns’ of High Street in Belfast. At the time the establishment was a woollen warehouse that also sold needlework supplies and dress accessories.

Patterns could be purchased individually, or in books devoted to needlework techniques. They were also included as supplements in journals aimed at women with an interest in fashion and needlework. One such publication was ‘The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine’ produced by Samuel Beeton and his wife Isabella. Launched in 1856 it quickly gained a readership of over 50,000 and helped to popularise many styles of embroidery, including Berlin wool work. Patterns for slipper fronts appeared regularly in these publications, often promoted as being the ideal gift for the dutiful wife or daughter to make for a male family member.

To make a pair of wool work slippers, two matching fronts were embroidered on a flat piece of canvas. After the embroidery was completed, it was either sent to a local shoe maker or department store to have the sole and perhaps a small heel added, or completed at home if the maker was particularly skilled. Flat slippers for men, those with a modest heel, for women. This kind of footwear was never intended for outdoor use, but rather for wear in the home, when relaxing or entertaining guests. The fashion fell out of favour in the 1890s as tastes in embroidery and dress changed in response to the Arts and Crafts movement and the development of ‘art needlework’.

Image: A pair of women’s slippers, hand embroidered in wool, c.1870.
A pair of women’s slippers, hand embroidered in wool, c.1870.

By the 1930s most production of Berlin wool work patterns had ceased and what patterns were available were much simpler in style. Despite some revivals of interests in the period 1950 to 1970 it has never regained the height of popularity it enjoyed in the 1800s.

The British fashion house Alexander McQueen took a contemporary look at the technique for its autumn/winter 2017 collection, as part of a collection based around traditional needlework styles. This pair of boots, from that collection, was acquired by National Museums NI in 2018, in order to illustrate an aesthetic that has spanned over 150 years – from Mrs Beeton to Michael Collins!

Image: A pair of boots from the Alexander McQueen a/w 2017 collection, embellished in the style of Berlin wool work.
A pair of boots from the Alexander McQueen a/w 2017 collection, embellished in the style of Berlin wool work.