Historical Beetle Wing Embroidery

There is nothing like not being able to sew that makes me want to sew!  During the school year, I have precious little time for anything other than work and research, and to add fuel to the fire, all of my work and research involves pretty costumes and interesting time periods that I want to try making.  Last semester, I researched beetle wing embroidery and figured it was about time to make a costumer’s holy grail: a beetle wing embroidered dress.



Evening dresses, 1845-1850, English, cotton muslin with beetle wing and metal embroidery. From Cora Ginsburg LLC catalog, 2000, p. 23.

A quick Google search will yield you dozens of amazing beetle wing embroidered garments from the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the ones I decided to use as an inspiration starting point are these two beauties.  I decided on these because I don’t normally do mid-century and don’t have anything 1840s in my closet, and I have a great set of 1850s undergarments that I don’t put to good enough use.  Also, the construction of these magnificent skirts would be in rectangular panels, which would make it easy to embroider.
This is my first attempt at beetle wing embroidery; for more expert advice, you can visit Wormspit or Needle ‘n Thread, both of which lay out a good foundation for me to begin my process.  But I thought I would share my experience as it relates to a historical costumer’s point of view.
I ordered a box of 1,000 beetle wings, or elytra, from eBay, and they arrived fairly quickly.  I was fully expecting to get grossed out by them, but it actually was OK.  They look and feel like fingernails, which makes sense since they are made of chitin.  One thing I noticed is that the package stunk a little bit, so I took my professor’s advice and put it in the freezer for a couple of days just as a precaution.

Jewel beetle

Beetle wings aren’t symmetrical.  These hard outer wings encase a delicate, membranous pair when not in flight.  They meet in a straight line down the “spine” of the beetle and have a slightly rounded outer edge at their sides. Beetle wings are easy to harvest: beetles swarm when they mate, after which they die. Harvesting wings is as easy as sweeping a forest floor for carcasses and the bodies of the insects perish much faster than the elytra.
You can purchase these wings pre-drilled, but I decided to buy them as-is.  I knew I wanted to use wings that were trimmed and shaped, and I knew that I needed at least one more hole, so it just made sense to do it all myself.  The most common shape I’ve seen in historical embroidery is a cleaned up version of the beetle wing’s natural shape, like a leaf, but you can also find historical pieces that use small “chips” of the wing.

This design is made from beetle wings trimmed to leaf shape. Textile sample, 19th century, India, embroidered plain-woven muslin, beetle wings, couched gold wire and sequins, Victoria and Albert Museum.


This design uses abstract beetle wing “chips.”  Textile sample, mid-19th century, India, silver, silk, spangles & beetle wings, Victoria and Albert Museum.

The process is fairly simple.  It takes time, but can get relaxing and meditative, like any repetitive task.  I pretty much followed the guidelines from other the other embroidery bloggers I mentioned.
First I steamed the wings.  They are hard but brittle, and steaming helps soften them a little and prevent them from cracking when you cut them. 
Using regular shears, I rounded the bottom edge, which can be particularly tough to get through.  I then evened out the point by trimming the straight side at a slight angle.
Putting holes in the wings is simple.  I just used a small metal awl and a cutting board as a base and pressed.  I gave the wing a little pivot and it was done.
I also wanted to make mini-sized wing shapes, so whenever I found a jumbo wing, I just cut it in half and went from there.

Left arc: untrimmed wings. Right arc: trimmed wings.

For reference, here are two arcs laid out with elytra: the one on the left is made with untrimmed wings, and on the right they are shaped.  I find the cleaned up version so much more appealing, but the accuracy of size and symmetry really isn’t that important—the slight variations are part of the natural beauty of this type of work.
After trimming a bunch of wings I began embroidering.  I laid out a design based on six 22” panels that will form the skirt. I adore the tongue-in-cheek insect motif, so I began experimenting with those.
I decided to use the same cotton voile from Dharma Trading Co. that I used for my 1806 whiteworked dress; that stuff is divine.  To apply the beetles, I used a green cotton thread, usually just in a V shape at the bottom and top.
And voila!  One motif down, a gajillion more to go.  I’ll continue the process in another post.  The gold bouillon antennae in this image should give you a clue of what the second part of the embroidery is all about.

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13 Responses to Historical Beetle Wing Embroidery

  1. Loren says:

    I just love this, it’s going to be so lovely! Thanks for sharing your process.

  2. I absolutely love it. I bought a pair of earings made of those wings at a craft fair. I love them and I would love to incorporate them into a dress someday.

    • J. Leia Lima says:

      They’re really pretty in real life, aren’t they? So much more than a camera can capture. Good luck with incorporating them into a costume, you should totally do it!

  3. This is really neat! The wings have such an amazing color, I can see why they were popular to use for embroidery. Can’t wait to see your finished project. 🙂


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  5. Pingback: Beetle wing embroidery: the design and accompanying goldwork | Wear When Why

  6. Catherine Scholar says:

    Depending on how dense your wing design is, the embroidery hoop may become problematic. (You can’t hoop over wings; they’ll break.) When I did my beetle wing reticule I used an upholstered frame and pinned the fabric to it. http://suehawkins.com/shop/upholstered-frame/

    • J. Leia Lima says:

      Hi Catherine, excellent point about the wings breaking if caught inside a hoop. Fortunately, I was able to work the embroidery inside different sized hoops without touching any neighboring motifs, sparing all the wings and the purl, which would also suffer great damage if pinched. The upholstered frame is also a good idea; I made one of those to help with filling in some additional space.

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