Today is George Washington’s birthday. In honor of the day, I thought it would be nice to talk about the woman in his life and her favorite household task—needlework.
Martha Washington was an accomplished needle artist, a skill deemed highly prized in women throughout much of history. In well-to-do households slaves and servants were tasked with the spinning, weaving, and constructing of their own garments and many of the household linens. Hired seamstresses and tailors constructed the finer garments worn by the gentry. However, the ladies of the house created the fine needlework embellishments of lace and embroidery that decorated their own garments and household linens.
Rarely did a day go by that Martha didn’t spend some time on her needlework, either sewing, knitting, or doing embroidery. Her handiwork can be seen throughout Mt. Vernon on chair cushions, footstools, and more. She enjoyed partaking of these pastimes with her daughter, granddaughters, friends, and even her female slaves, often acting as teacher who expected the same precision and attention to detail from others as she gave to her own work.
In 1766, Martha acquired the materials to create a dozen chair bottoms from a London upholsterer. She spent the next thirty-six years cross-stitching a scallop shell pattern, which she may have designed herself. The above cushion is one of six that can be found at Mount Vernon and is a rare example of Martha’s talent.