Cheering Daily Life with Depression Lace

Despite its popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, Depression Lace today is generally categorized—and often dismissed—as folk embroidery.

Mary Polityka Bush Apr 20, 2020 - 5 min read

Cheering Daily Life with Depression Lace Primary Image

Mary Polityka Bush’s classic gingham apron with Depression Lace worked on the bib and pocket. Photo by Joe Coca

The Great Depression (1929–1933) bankrupted countless people not only financially but emotionally as well. For many women, humble gingham fabric, inexpensive thread, and simple embroidery stitches combined to nourish and comfort tattered spirits. The embroidery technique that cheered them was known at the time as Depression Lace, Hoover Lace, or Hoover Star embroidery (the last two after President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964). Among its many other names are Gingham Lace, Chinese Pinwheel, Tic Tac Toe and Amish embroidery, Mountain Lace, Gingham Tracks, Snowflake Lace, Snowflaking or Chicken Scratch for its resemblance to a chicken’s footprint in the dirt. Sometimes incorrectly called Teneriffe, it does borrow needle-weaving elements such as multispoke petals and spider-web stitches from that style of needle lace.

Needlework always has played a pivotal role in enhancing the quality of life and one’s environment, adorning clothing and enriching home furnishings. In earlier centuries, the finest needlework, lace in particular, was also an undisputed, envied mark of wealth, rank, and prestige. Only the noble and wealthy classes could afford fine handmade laces. The less fortunate, however, can be credited with using cheaper materials and basic needlework skills to mimic fine lace. Dresden Lace (see “The Great Pretender: Dresden Lace Embroidery,” PieceWork, May/June 2010) is one such innovation; Depression Lace is another.

Depression Lace is cross-stitch embroidery taken to a higher level. Its gingham ground fabric and a wrapping technique borrowed from needle weaving that creates a lacy appearance give it a definitive cachet. Traditionally, white thread is used for stitching on the solid-colored squares of the gingham and vice versa so that the design stands out against the background. The technique is probably less than 260 years old. Gingham, a yarn-dyed plain-weave fabric that traces its name to ginggang or genggang (Malay for “striped”) was originally woven as a striped pattern. Not until the mid-eighteenth century, when gingham was being produced in the mills of Manchester, England, were both the warp and weft striped to produce the checked fabric we know today.

Like many other types of needlework, Depression Lace probably evolved from simple origins. Because gingham, with its grid of squares in white and two shades of a second color, naturally invites cross-stitch embellishment, it is likely that Depression Lace embroidery began with a stitched “X” covering one gingham square.

The basic stitches, few in number and easy enough for a child to master, make Depression Lace a perfect introduction to embroidery. The essentials are cross-stitch, half cross, Smyrna (also known as double cross), and straight or running stitches, although other stitches such as French knot, rice, spider web (sometimes called polka-dot stitch), and other techniques such as drawn thread may be incorporated.

Gingham is the only fabric used for Depression Lace even though similar effects can be created by working the same stitches on any fabric with an evenly spaced pattern of dots, gridlines, or checks. All-cotton gingham is preferred over blends, the heavier the better to support the weight of the stitches and to make stitching easier. If lightweight gingham is used, backing the embroidery area with a layer of muslin with the same fiber content is recommended. To control the stitching tension so that the fabric does not pucker, the use of an embroidery hoop is advisable, if not essential.

Crochet cotton, pearl cotton, and stranded embroidery floss are all popular threads for Depression Lace. But anything goes. Author, designer, and collector Laurie Latour treasures one ankle-length apron in her huge collection of Depression Lace not only because she inherited it from her grandmother (possibly even from her great-grandmother) but also because its stitching with what appear to be scraps of kitchen string suggests the Depression-era dictum “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

Despite its popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, Depression Lace today is generally categorized—and often dismissed—as folk embroidery. Most compendiums of serious needlework don’t mention it at all. I hope that the pendulum of popularity will swing back soon and that Depression Lace will once again bring cheer to our homes.

MARY POLITYKA BUSH of Piedmont, California, stitched her first Depression Lace projects—a facial-tissue holder and a miniature Christmas stocking—more than twenty years ago. She has enjoyed renewing her acquaintance with the technique in preparation for this article. She thanks Laurie Latour for sharing her knowledge of and enthusiasm for Depression Lace.

This article originally was published in the May/June 2012 issue of PieceWork.