Women in World War I: French Stitchery
This is the 3rd post in the Women in World War 1 series. To begin with the Introduction, please click here.
The objects in this section are embroidered household items, which at first glance may seem quaint and unconnected to the hardships of living in a war zone. However, these objects and their backstory show how profoundly World War I affected civilian women and how these women fought to meet the challenges of war.
The National Museum of American History
"We tend to focus on the political and military aspects of war, but this offers us a more personal glimpse of the war’s impact. I wonder who decided what items to make and what designs to embroider?" 5 stars by Cheryl
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Northern France was one of the most war-torn areas of the Great War—the Germans entered early on in the war, displacing thousands of French people and destroying much of the region. As fighting continued in France and trench warfare began, the country became even more devastated.
For the people who remained in northern France during the war, life itself was a battle, a daily struggle to survive, to make ends meet, and to rebuild lives.The objects in this section are embroidered household items, which at first glance may seem quaint and unconnected to the hardships of living in a war zone. However, these objects and their backstory show how profoundly World War I affected civilian women and how these women fought to meet the challenges of war.
WWI French stitchery: large drawstring knitting bag. One side has the French Third Republic emblem motif (blue "RF" embroidered on red shield at top; 4 masted French flags below; green and white croix de guerre [war cross] at bottom with gold center) with "1916" embroidered underneath in red. The other side has a scene of 4 French cavalry members with 4 brown horses in a wooded area. Green embroidery along the bottom and green X stitch holding drawstring on both sides. Made by French peasant women in French Lorraine. Sold in America through the Society for Employment of Women in France.
Through the Society for Employment of Women in France, women in the region of Lorraine were able to sell this hand-made stitchery in America, with all of the proceeds going to the women and their families.
A June 1916 letter that accompanied some of these items paints a vivid picture of the women's lives and their efforts at survival:
"The women sit inside their houses under fire constantly, and embroider. When a shell is heard on its way they duck into the cellars until it bursts, and then come out again at once. The cellars are all marked—that is[,] the safe ones, with signs pointing to them and telling their capacity. The women who embroider are those whose men—sons, husbands, and fathers are at the front or wounded or killed . . ."
WWI French stitchery: tablecloth for a tea table with a brown and silver eagle in each corner. Each eagle holds the same 8 flags of Allied nations, 4 on each side. The flags on the left side are (top to bottom): Britain, Russia, Belgium, and Serbia. The flags on the right side are (top to bottom): France, Italy, Japan, and Romania. Each eagle holds an American shield emblem in its claws. Light green and brown embroidery resembling vines and wreathes border the tablecloth 4 inches from the edge. Light green zig-zag stitches along the tablecloth's edge. Made by French peasant women in French Lorraine.
This powerful scene of French peasant women working tirelessly to embroider household items, close enough to the front to be under constant fire, becomes all the more impressive when you see what the women were making.
Rectangular brush and comb case with scene of "Aeroplanes Guarding Paris" embroidered on front. Four gold airplanes fly over a gray and black Paris skyline. Red and blue border. Price tag is pinned to the inside flap and reads: "$1.50 / Brush & / comb case / "Aeroplanes / guarding / Paris"." Made by French peasant women in French Lorraine during World War I.
The meticulous needlework represents the main Allied forces of the Great War in extraordinarily detailed cross-stitched tableaux depicting colorful soldier figures, flags, coats of arms, and even the city of Paris with planes flying overhead, protecting the city.
In addition to embroidery, which the women typically did during the winter months, they also took to the fields during the summer and tended crops, working until the fields were all harvested.
The flax for these objects was grown in Africa and shipped to France, where it was hand-woven to make the linen.