Unspooling Stories

Art historian Andrea Pappas explores the sneaky feminism woven into colonial embroideries.

Needlework Gallery
Photos of needlework printed with permission from Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library.

When you think of artifacts from 18th century America, you might picture the Declaration of Independence or letters by founding father Alexander Hamilton. However, associate professor of art history Andrea Pappas has uncovered a hidden tapestry of stories in Colonial women’s work—specifically, their needlework.

Time-intensive and requiring dexterous fingers, embroidery was one of the few forms of female expression in this period, offering important but less-studied insights on family life, the environment, and social hierarchies. In her new book, Embroidering the Landscape: Art, Women and the Environment in British North America, 1740-1770, Pappas pours over environmentally-themed embroideries such as this 1748 needlework by Sarah Warren, an upper-class Bostonian woman, featuring the popular “fishing lady” motif.

Pappas sees her research like detective work, seeking clues others might have missed. “Being an art historian comes down to two fundamental questions: what am I looking at, and what is it made of? Embroidery fabric is like the earth’s surface—you have to dig up those material roots to grasp the full meaning.”


The series of tableaus in this embroidery begins with a woman receiving the attention of a new suitor. Her basket of spun yarn demonstrates her skill at needlework, which was a prized qualification for marriage.

The second tableau (pictured right) is one of the more common compositions of the “fishing lady,” which appeared across porcelain, prints, and needlework of the era. The motif depicted a critical moment in courtship customs—the moment when a woman could either accept or reject a suitor’s offer of marriage.

While marriage was typically a male-dominated process, this art depicted women as skilled anglers and men as their metaphorical catches. Here, the woman receives the suitor’s flower, leaving it in her hair to keep her hands free to fish. He gestures away from the pond, but the woman’s body still leans toward her work, a basket overflowing with fish, demonstrating her prowess at “luring” in men and her skill in a modern, non-domestic pastime.

Spotlight Needlework Picture, Detail 2
The fishing lady motif appears often in porcelain, prints, and needlework of the time.

The final tableau features the couple picking pears surrounded by open countryside. Pears, like fishing, were typically associated with autumn—a season that symbolized efforts finally coming to fruition. Below, the hunters, dogs, and stags hint at the man’s continuing “hunt” for the woman’s affection. However, domestic homes remain in the far distance, leaving the outcome of the courtship open-ended—prolonging this moment of the woman’s agency. Harvest and hunt motifs like these were popular across other 17th-and-18th-century British and New England embroideries.

Beyond the imagery, the materials used in embroideries like this illustrate the complex global economy of the colonial period. Blue and green dyes came from India and Central America, needles from environmentally destructive steel forges in England, and mahogany frames from the Caribbean. “There’s no way that this woman stitching knew all of this, but it’s connected,” Pappas explains, adding that the artist’s family wealth was often dependent on colonial trade and slavery.

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