Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Beetlewing Gown for the Netherfield Ball

I've been aware of beetlewing embroidery for a while, ever since stumbling upon the famous Macbeth gown from 1888. But, it's not something that I ever really looked in to. It was more of a "huh, that's pretty nifty", and then I would go on to something else.

Then I came across some very early examples of beetlewing embroidery on English gowns from late Regency, and an idea started for form in my mind. You see, there's an event in June, a Regency ball, in Dallas, that I'm very excited about. What's better than a night of dancing in a fabulous dress?

So, of course, I'll need that fabulous dress.

Beetlework embroidery started to become popular during the 1820s. It seems to have been done exclusively on white muslin, and was created in India for export to English markets. Floral motifs, vines, and paisleys were the most popular patterns.


I haven't been able to find extant gowns or fashion plates from the Regency that shows beetlewing embroidery. The above examples are fragments, pieces that were embroidered, but never made into gowns. Perhaps these gowns were just very rare, or they didn't survive because of their fragility. Whatever the case, this leaves me with a terrifying amount of unknowns - what did a finished gown look like? How complete is the embroidery on these fragments? Were there supposed to be other designs on the fabric, or just there at the hem like we see now?

So, I'm going to take cues from other Regency gowns, and come up with my own design. I am going to stay with the white muslin background, since there's no evidence these gowns were ever any other color. Even later in the century, when beetlework came back into fashion, it was still on white fabric, like these gowns from different eras.

 Kent State University Museum, c. 1863-67
 Unknown, looks like 1840s-60s
 Unknown, 1892-94

Goldwork is commonly seen alongside beetle wings, though in the earlier examples it seems to be more wings and less gold, and later on it's the other way around.

I'm going to stick with the "MOAR WINGS" style of the early gowns. I really like this gown from 1795, and I think the style of the embroidery would lend itself well to me "winging it".

It's a cross-front "round gown", which I'm not too keen on, but I do like the overall embellishment pattern on the fabric, and I think that with a paisley design at the hem like the examples from the early gowns, it would be a really nice dress. I also quite like this dress -

Dress 1805-1810 The Philadelphia Museum of Art

It reminds me a bit of the 1860s dress with the beetlewing (I keep wanting to write "beetlework". I think I'm going to keep using beetlework from now on.) I'm sure there's some way to combine the two looks without doing too much to the dress, so there are definitely some sketches in order.

I'm going to need a lot of beetle wings. A preliminary search through google only brought up a few results, and they were geared toward jewelry makers, so they were for small quantities at really high prices. (24 wings for $7? Pfft!) Then I tried eBay, and I found a seller that has lots of 1,000 wings for $40! Huzzah! (The trick is to search "elytra".) The more desirable, blue-leaning wings are a bit more expensive, about double the price of the green-leaning wings, but since I'm going for the vine-y look of the early embroidery examples, the green are just what I need.

Sketches to come!


  1. Beetlework is so beautiful! I can't wait to see how your dress turns out.

  2. I think that will on my to do list for sometime in the future. It would be a very time consuming project and a bit on the expensive side. So it wont be happening this year for me...but some day....