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Fine Pillows for Collectors: A Brief History of the Pillow in Europe

In 1983 a pair of early 18th century needlework pillows sold at a London auction for over $30,000 marking antique pillows as serious objects for study and collection. Studying the history of pillows is not easy, since it embraces the vast history of tapestry, needlework and other textiles. As utilitarian objects, pillows have been made for centuries. Wherever people have been civilized enough to desire more comfort than that of the floor or bare furniture, the pillow has a strong historical presence. In England, medieval references to pillows are sometimes found in illuminated manuscripts where they are shown arranged on benches and settles. Early inventories also mention them as early as the 15th century, and it was during the Tudor and Stuart periods that pillows were most fashionable. Given the starkness of the furniture–there were few chairs and most people sat on benches–pillows must have been a great comfort and a source of color within a dark space. Even in fairly small houses, several pillows would be found. These comprised long pillows for bed, settles, window seats or benches, and square or round pillows for stools or chairs. There were also pillows for special purposes–for resting a bible on, for example. These were presumably made out of reverence both for the book itself and for the beautiful needlework cover it might have. In the 16th century, it was also customary to carry a pillow to church to kneel and sit on. 

Pillows offered inviting opportunities for the enthusiastic needleworkers of the Elizabethan period to demonstrate their skills. It seems that much of this work was done by both men and women at home whose skill merits something better than the term “amateur.” In addition, there were professional embroiderers, often men, who were commissioned to produce sets of hangings and furnishings for grand households. pillows were less daunting for the domestic needleworker to tackle than hangings, so many of those which survive are said to be the work of highly skilled amateurs. In Tudor times, pillows made popular gifts in courtly circles. Queen Elizabeth is recorded as giving and receiving several from the ladies of the court. While the Queen herself seems to have been adept at needlework, her half sister, Mary Queen of Scots, preferred to employ someone to sew pillows for her as gifts. The amount of money she is recorded to have spent on these pillows suggests that these were prestigious presents. 

The pillows with survive from the Elizabethan period provide impressive examples of the embroiderer’s art. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has several Elizabeth pillows in the English primary Galleries which are well worth studying. Particularly popular at this time were the long pillows about 20 to 22 inches wide. (this was the size of the loom on which their linen base was woven) and about 40 to 44 inches long. They were placed on benches, window seats and other pieces of furniture. The designs with which these and the other pillows of the time were embroidered often come from newly published herbals, bestiaries and natural history books. They would be drawn either by a professional draftsman, or by some able craftsman attached to the household. These designs would then be stitched in tent stitch (petit point) using the newly imported silks, and for finer pillows, couched silver and silver gilt thread. Sometimes such embroidered designs or “slips” would be cut out and applied to a velvet ground. Otherwise the whole pillow cover might be made up on tent stitch, as often as fine as 400 stitches to the square inch. 

During the 17th century, needlework pillows in a variety of sizes were popular. Pictorial slips with fruit, flowers and insects were worked in tent stitch and applied to pillow covers. The 17th century fashion for embroidery in high relief, called “raised work” or “stump work,” also found expression in pillows, although in lower relief than in stump work pictures. Another vogue was for “turkey work” wool knotted in imitation or Oriental carpets. This technique was applied to pillows. Another technique that was applied to pillow covers was tapestry. The correct meaning of tapestry has nothing to do with the modern “needlepoint tapestry” which is distinct from needlework since it is woven on a loom. The colored weft threads cover the strong warp threads, forming the pattern and building up a firm, ribbed texture. In the 16th and 17th centuries vast tapestries were made in Europe to furnish the halls of grand houses and castles. These depicted all manner of scenes and were either copied from paintings of the day, or had designs (cartoons) created especially for them. Overshadowed by these great tapestries and often overlooked, are the small examples. These were probably woven as pillow covers and bear a wide variety of designs–classical, biblical and armorial. Sets of such tapestries were made, showing scenes from a story, or related allegorical subjects. The armorial examples may have been presentation pieces, made as gifts for those of high office. Sometimes these tapestries bear the mark of their maker, a date or a motto. Tapestries were made in many European countries including Holland, Flanders and some German principalities.  

In the 18th century French tapestries became dominant, with examples of pillow covers made at Beauvais and Aubusson. The designs reflect the lighter, more frivolous spirit of French art at that time and contrast to the bold, strongly colored Baroque designs of the previous century. Major artists such as Boucher and Oudry involved themselves with the French tapestry factories of the 18th century resulting in tapestry designs of the highest quality. Small tapestries were designed and used as sets of pillow covers. 

The advent of upholstered furniture at the end of the 17th century made pillows less important as a part of furnishings for a time. Attention was instead focused on chair coverings which showed some of the finest needlework in the 18th century. Demand did continue for pillows in the early 18th century though and even Chippendale mentioned the importance of scattering pillows on a sofa. 

Tent stitch and cross stitch embroidery in floral designs remained popular in the early 18th century, with appliqué (or applied work) coming into fashion later in the century. Crewelwork covers and hangings were ordered from India and these influenced designs early in the century. French tapestry furnishings were imported to this country during the 18th century. 

The 19th century saws a continuation of interest in needlework. Much woolwork was executed on meshed canvases. Some examples were worked to a high standard comparing favorably with the work of earlier centuries. Pillows made without needlework or tapestry were also popular. Damask and brocade, cut velvets and mohair were used. 

Collecting Pillows 

Most people will be interested in collecting pillows to furnish their homes. Condition is always an important consideration. Antique fibers, particularly silks, are subject to ultraviolet deterioration and it is important that these fabric are stabilized using conservation methods. All of the textiles offered through Fehrman & Fehrman are preserved in this way. In addition to condition, other factors affecting the price of an antique pillow are the design and the coloring. Pastel coloring typical of 18th century French tapestry is currently popular, although rich original color is also popular. A recognizable design showing well defined subject matter is preferable to a blurred example. Fine embroidery is highly collectible as is tapestry. Embroideries and tapestries can be complemented by fine period brocades and damasks which are usually less costly but add a richness and sheen that can only be found in a gently aged silk. 

A pillow without trim is like a painting without a frame; it looks unfinished. Proper selection of fringes and trims add to the overall cost of an antique pillow but they are the finishing touch that displays the antique textile in the way it was intended to be seen. Proper application of trim also helps to protect the edges of antique textiles.  

Care and Maintenance of Antique Textile Pillows 

Antique textile pillows which have been properly conserved prior to purchase are very durable and can last a long time with reasonable care. The two biggest enemies of antique textiles are dust and sunlight. Dust can eventually saw through fibers an ultraviolet light can cause sun rot. Regular gentle vacuuming with the hose nozzle held just above the textile will keep them free of dust. Keeping antique textiles out of direct sunlight is also desirable. Damage can be done to an antique pillow by picking it up by the corners. Antique textile pillows should always be picked up with both hands as though carrying a box. It goes without saying that an antique textile should never come in contact with mothballs, spray-on “fabric protectors” or stain repellents since these will damage the fibers. These textiles are sturdy enough to have survived the centuries and with reasonable care they will be enjoyed by future generations.


Copyrighted, Cherie Fehrman 2020. All rights reserved.