Sunday, May 5, 2013

Unusual Artifacts: A Pair of Mittens from 1600

The Victoria & Albert Museum

Mittens! Old mittens! Old, very uncomfortable-looking mittens! But, they’re pretty. Here, we see a pair of mittens of crimson velvet and white satin. They are embroidered with silver and silver-gilt thread, colored silks, beads and sequins.

To be fair, these mittens were made in 1600 for decorative rather than a practical function. Sure, someone wore them, but not because they were useful. Items like mittens and gloves in opulent embroidery and beadwork were meant to show off the wearer's wealth and status. Here, the embroidery features silver and silver-gilt thread with colored silks in a series of very complicated stitches depicting flowers such as borage, pinks and lilies, as well as insects and fruits. Present amidst the embroidered foliage, is a pillar entwined with a sprouting vine.

The designs here are clearly inspired by themes from Geffrey Whitney's book, “A Choice of Emblemes” (1586). This volume of emblems was the first such English book and it greatly influences the decorative arts during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.

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