Developments in the arts during the nineteenth century provided the right climate for a new type of patchwork. The Great Exhibition of 1851 held in London was meant to showcase the best of British manufacturing, but many in the art world were disappointed. John Ruskin and William Morris became leading figures in the call for reform in design education and manufacture, advocating the value of individuality, craftsmanship, and handmade goods.
The Aesthetic Movement in the 1860s was made up of a group of bohemian and forward-thinking artists and designers, who championed pure beauty and 'art for art's sake'. The visual and sensual qualities of art and design were emphasised rather than practical considerations. The homes of artists were seen as the pinnacle of refinement and good taste. James McNeill Whistler, an American-born and British-based artist, designed The Peacock Room, one of the most famous examples of Aesthetic-style interior design.
In the late nineteenth century, the Arts and Crafts movement sought to remove the division between architects, designers and makers and bring about a revival of the status of the decorative arts. Simple forms, an emphasis on the qualities of materials, and using the past and British nature for inspiration were major characteristics.
Until the nineteenth century, embroidery had remained an almost exclusive leisure pursuit for upper class women. It started to lose its high regard as more and more women began to indulge in fancywork. Art needlework rose in popularity partly as a reaction to the amount of Berlin work being made.
The Royal School of Needlework was founded in 1872 to help elevate the status of embroidery, as well as provide a suitable occupation for ‘distressed’ gentlewomen. Many notable artists of the period produced designs for the school including many for the exhibits sent to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The exhibition was received with incredible enthusiasm and sparked the birth of art needlework in the United States.