Beetle Wing Textiles

Beetle wing tea-cosy decoration

Examples of beetle-wing embroidery represent one of the more esoteric types of fancy needlework in the collection. Hampshire Cultural Trust holds European and especially English embroidery from the 17th century onwards. We hold a small sample of non-European embroidered textiles where they were clearly decorated in or influenced by European designs, and for comparative purposes. Hence we have examples of beetle-wing embroidery on parts of two Victorian dresses, an Edwardian stole, a 1920s dress and some embroidered tableware.

Such items were often made in India, but were worn and used by Europeans seeking something unusual and exotic. The beetle-wings have an iridescence that is fascinating, as they catch the light, natural or artificial, with the effect of a highly polished reflective stone or glass. Indeed they can be mistaken for gemstones or glass pastes of emerald or sapphire from a distance. Early examples would originally have been seen by candle light or gas light, presenting quite an intriguing spectacle. We hold a good collection of 19th and 20th century domestic textiles ranging from carpets to curtains, and bell-pulls to beer mats. We have several examples of Victorian tea-cosies.

The beetle-wings used in embroidery are the modified fore-wings (elytra) of beetles (Coleoptera) and mostly come from members of the family Buprestidae, often know as Jewel Beetles. Each beetle has two hard elytra that protect the delicate, membranous hind-wings which are folded away beneath the elytra when they are not being used for flying. One of the most frequently used beetle-wing comes from the species Sternocera aequisignata Saunders. This jewel beetle is found in Northern India, Burma and Thailand, and is apparently fairly common where it occurs. Each elytron of this species is leaf-shaped, convex and measures 2cm-3cm long. The wing cases are hard and shell-like. They are tough, but break up under direct pressure. The outer surface is shiny and iridescent, giving the effect of sunlight on oil-slick, variously green tending to purple or green tending to bronze. This surface is finely pitted and highly reflective. The underside is brown and woody. There are references to several other jewel beetle species being used both within India and also in South America, especially Brazil.

The use of natural organic materials for European costume and accessories including jewellery is well established, from furs and feathers to shells for cameos and buttons. The jewel-like quality of the beetle-wing was clearly thought particularly appropriate for European ball dress in the middle quarters of the 19th century. Later, such dresses were conceived, or reworked, for fancy dress. They were particularly effective under stage-lighting, hence Ellen Terry wore a beetle-wing encrusted dress for her role as Lady Macbeth (as seen in the John Singer Sargent portrait of 1889 (Tate Gallery, London) and the surviving dress at Smallhythe, Kent), which presented an appropriately macabre vision.

Beetle-wings have been used for centuries by Indian civilisations, cut into tiny spangle shapes to adorn a range of objects from garments and turban cloths, to canopies and book covers, their reflective properties admired as a means to ward off evil spirits. Underside couching of the surface laid gilt threads is a typically Indian technique, seen on a vast array of Indian embroidered uniforms in many museum collections, and throughout the 20th century on tourist souvenirs such as tablemats. Indian artisans centres in Calcutta, Madras and Delhi all produced such work for the export trade.

It was clearly possible to acquire the beetle-wings in England by the mid Victorian era, too.  A beetle-wing embroidered lace dress worked by a dressmaker in Dublin had been exhibited in The Great Exhibition in 1851 and by 1865 a discussion on the ‘queries and answers’ pages of The Queen magazine pondered how a very large quantity of ‘Indian beetle-wings’, could best be employed to good effect on English dresses. The enquirer noted that “in India the wings are generally bordered round with gold or silver, but I do not think this is at all necessary”. The use of “white crape or aerophane” as opposed to muslin or velvet was recommended for the ground.

The beetle-wing tea-cosy in our collection certainly combines European form with Indian decoration, and that is part of its peculiar charm. It may seem bizarre at first to adorn the tea table with what is essentially insect debris, but on reflection the image of a late Victorian family keeping their Indian tea hot under such a tea-cosy, with Victoria, the Queen Empress reigning over all, seems entirely appropriate.