Preservation Magazine, Spring 2019

A Martha Washington Chair Cushion Puts Needlework Front and Center at Woodlawn

A chair cushion made by Martha Washington.

photo by: Scott Suchman

Over two centuries old, this wool chair cushion was one of 12 embroidered by Martha Washington over the span of 36 years.

Fine craftsmanship has a rich tradition at Woodlawn, a National Trust Historic Site in Alexandria, Virginia. Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis Lewis, the plantation’s first owner and granddaughter of Martha Washington, was an accomplished artist and musician. And the site’s many fine architectural details include the cornices, millwork, and mantelpieces of the mansion’s main block, designed by William Thornton. But one of the newest additions to the site’s collection, a D-shaped wool chair cushion, offers visitors perhaps the most powerful tangible connection yet to Woodlawn’s artistic heritage.

The cushion is one of 12 embroidered by Martha Washington at nearby Mount Vernon around 1801. Washington gave it to Nelly Lewis, who passed it on to her son Lorenzo Lewis. It remained within the Lewis family until it was donated to Woodlawn in 2018 by four of Nelly’s descendants, brothers Edwin, Fielding, Henry, and John Lewis. Handwriting on the cushion’s linen backing, thought to be Nelly’s, further confirms the lineage.

The scallop-shell pattern, stitched in shades of burgundy and yellow, was likely designed by Washington herself. It debuted to the public at Woodlawn’s 56th annual Needlework Show & Sale in March and was on display through June 1, 2019.

“Needlework is one of those craft forms that has had a huge resurgence in the past five years,” says Amanda Phillips, director of site interpretation and partnerships at Woodlawn. “For the visitors who come to the show, pieces like this are very exciting.”

Nicholas Som is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He enjoys museums of all kinds, Philadelphia sports, and tracking down great restaurants.

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