One Letter at a Time

16th October 2020

A monogrammed shirt or handkerchief nowadays might be regarded as the height of elegance or simply as a historical curiosity. But monograms in all their forms have been around for a very long time. Written, carved, minted or embroidered, the tradition of creating monograms goes back centuries and can be seen as one of the earliest forms of branding, acting as the precursor to the millions of logos we are all so familiar with today.

Love Letters’ by Elisabetta Sforza from Inspirations issue #89

What is a monogram? Interestingly, the casual use of the term seems to include all representations of initials, whether ornate or simple, singular or with multiple characters. However, technically, only groups of letters which are a combination, entwined or joined together in some way, should be referred to as a monogram. 

A series of separated initials is actually a cypher, although in modern parlance, the term monogram tends to be used generically. Monograms were initially used on coins minted in Ancient Greece. The letter combinations represented specific towns or localities or indicated the domain of certain dignitaries. 

As time passed, the monogram became a signature, used especially by people such as Charlemagne, Emperor of the Carolingian Empire in the 8th century who, it is suggested, couldn’t write and so needed a dignified way to sign his name.

‘Chosen One’ by Anna Scott from Inspirations issue #82

From there, monogram use was adopted by artists and craftsmen to mark their work or claim authorship. This was particularly important during the height of the guild system in the late Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, when there were strict enforcement measures against unauthorised participation in the trades.

Monograms could indicate an individual or a workshop and became widely recognisable as a symbol of quality.

Throughout the period, royalty frequently adopted ornate monograms or cyphers. Used to indicate status, ownership and power, royal monograms appeared in many places, including embroidered onto linens, clothing and textiles.

Like many things, when the royal family did it, everyone who wanted to boost their own status did it too and embroidered monograms became more and more popular. They had started as simple laundry marks, stitched onto bed linen and clothing which were destined for the communal laundries of large estates or villages. 

However, the art of the embroidered monogram grew more detailed and ornate, raising it from a laundry mark to a status mark, something which hit a peak during Victorian times.

Warm Welcome | The Blanket’ by Susan O’Connor from Inspirations issue #91

During the Victorian era, little girls started to learn how to embroider around 5 or 6 years old, and by the time they were 14, they were already skilfully embroidering their trousseau. This usually consisted of working a single letter onto all of the linens which they would take with them into their marriage. Of course, space would be left for the unknown husband’s initial to be added at the appropriate time.

Even today, newly married couples will often employ a monogram to indicate their union.

Surprisingly, the etiquette of which order the initials appear in and which initial is the most prominent varies greatly from place to place. What is acceptable in Britain may not be ideal on the Continent. In modern times, people devising a monogram may vary from traditional etiquette, depending on what the combination of letters spells out. 

Good Scents’ by Lorna Bateman from Inspirations issue #81

Fortunately, there are no hard and fast rules anymore. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Catherine were probably pleased about that when they realised the traditional combination of their initials – WC – was an abbreviation for Water Closet otherwise known as the toilet! 

Luckily, what we have gained from the tradition is the pleasure of embroidering ornate and beautiful letters, but we’re able to combine it with the plethora of fonts, colours, styles, combinations and patterns which we enjoy as embroiderers in the 21st Century.

We have the fortune to draw inspiration from the iconic monograms of some of the best-known brands in the world just as much as we do from a simple, white-on-white monogram that adorns a treasured wedding handkerchief embroidered by a great-grandmother. 

When you look around, you’ll see monograms everywhere. But the ones that really excite us are the ones which are lovingly worked with needle and thread, either on existing items or as a focus in themselves. How lucky we are that we can draw on the past to create something endlessly beautiful for today and for the future.

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