What is Paper Punch Embroidery? (An Antique Guide)

If you have never heard of paper punch embroidery, you’re not alone. This somewhat obscure craft was extremely popular during the Victorian era (1837-1901). Women and children both took to this form of handwork in the thousands, and examples can be found across America.

Once a valued antique, its popularity as a collectible peeked in the last quarter of the 20th century. However, enthusiastic collectors continue to purchase items, though at lower prices than in the past.

What is Paper Punch Embroidery?

TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. What is Paper Punch Embroidery
2. Mottos
3. Keepsakes
4. Bookmarks
5. Values

What Is Paper Punch Embroidery

For years before the Victorian period, women and young girls had embroidered beautiful designs on linen fabric creating heirloom artwork, pillow cases, funeral remembrances, night clothes, samplers, and more.

In the 1840’s, and continuing through to the end of the century, paper punch embroidery grew very popular.

Typically pieces like mottos, keepsakes, and bookmarks contained words or phrases meaningful at the time and/or to the maker.

Scripture, song lyrics, lines of poetry, popular sayings, greetings, and spiritual sentiments make up a list of the sorts of things you would find on these mementos.

An Example: Thy Will Be Done

Victorian perferated paper punch: Thy Will Be Done

This piece, Thy Will Be Done, serves as a great example for us to look at more closely. To give you an idea of current value, I picked it up at a small thrift store for $10 and it sold from my antique booth for $58.

The craft involved heavy weight paper called bristol card (Embroiderors Guild) and wool or silk embroidery floss. The card would contain evenly spaced holes numbering anywhere from 10 to 28 holes per inch. More holes for smaller projects.

Motto-sized frames usually ran 10″ x 21″ (sometimes 8 1/2″ rather than 10″). They could be purchased at the same time as the paper and floss and were typically found in the Victorian criss-cross style with crossed corners, corner leaf decorations, and an inner frame in gold.

Close Up of Embroidery

Close up of an Antique perforated paper motto

Taking a closer look at this paper punch project, we can see the stitches made through the holes with embroidery thread that work together create the design.

While these involve straight stitches, you might also find back, half cross, and tent stitches on other examples.

In the 1870’s companies began to produce bristol card with designs imprinted on them, which explains the proliferation of so many identical projects.

Sometimes crafters backed their mottos with a sheet of foil to add some sparkle to the project.

Back of Framed Paper Punch Embroidery

Back of perforated Paper punch

Don’t forget to take a look at the back of your piece as it tells an informative story. This one looks exactly as you’d expect.

Rather than paper (or if the paper has been removed) you’ll find a piece of oxidized (darkened) wood holding the embroidery in place. Typically the nails will appear slightly rusty.

And since these were hobby pieces, often the hanging wire may appear somewhat unprofessionally wrapped around the eye screw, as with the wire above.

Other Names for Paper Punch Embroidery

Perforated paper goes by a number of other names. In fact, since I first began selling antiques 27 years ago, I’ve called them “German paper punch”. Here are some other names that I’m aware of:

  • German paper punch
  • Perforated paper punch
  • Berlin work

Some buyers and sellers referred to the work as Berlin or German because the wool used often came from these locations.

Paper Punch Mottos

Mottos make up one of the most prolific categories of paper punch embroidery projects that you can find on the secondary market.

Initially crafters purchased blank bristol card and created their own designs, later you could buy the card with attractive designs imprinted on them for easy use.

Below are some examples of mottos that came with pre-printed designs:

The Old Arm Chair

Victorian The Old Arm Chair perforated paper motto

This motto shares an interesting saying, which must have been meaningful back in the day(?): “The Old Arm Chair”.

Old Arm Chair

Victorian Perforated paper punch motto: Old Arm Chair

And here’s a slight variation, “Old Arm Chair”.

Watch and Pray

Antique perforated paper moto: Watch and Pray

Notice the Victorian criss-cross style frame used for this motto: “Watch and Pray”.

Faith, Love, and Hope (translated from German)

Antique German perforated paper punch: Faith, Love, Hope

Here’s an example of a motto in German, which translated reads: “Faith, Love, & Hope”.

Welcome to All

Victorian perforated paper embroidery: welcome to all

This example reveals a slightly rarer black, rather than tan background. It’s also a good example of a more widely sought expression, Welcome to All, and of a motto with standout colors (red and white).

Paper Punch Keepsake

Small pieces, not shaped like a bookmark, fall into the “keepsake” category. They would likely have been exchanged as a tokens of friendship.

Victorian paper punch keepsake showing a harp

This small keepsake with the image of a harp is quite intricate. Next to it you can see what the back of the project would look like.

Paper Punch Bookmarks

Bookmarks make the perfect size for beginner embroiderors, particularly children who would be overwhelmed by a large motto or sampler.

For Thee My Sister

Victorian paper punch bookmark: For Thee My Sister

You can imagine a small girl practicing her embroidery on this bookmark made for her sweet sister.

E.A Levanway & Mary E. Young

Victorian paper punch bookmark: Names

Here you see two more bookmarks, these with embroidered names: E.A. Levanway and Mary E. Young. Mary’s is tacked onto a long piece of silk–a common embellishment for paper punch bookmarks as you’ll see.

Remember Me

Victorian paper punch bookmark: Remember Me with silk backing

This wonderful condition bookmark, Remember Me, sold recently on eBay for $25.

Let Us Bear It

Victorian paper punch bookmark: Let Us Bear It

Less common to come across are lacy-edged bookmarks like this one depicting a cross surrounded by the words, Let Us Bear It.

Happy New Year

Victorian paper punch bookmark: Happy New Year

I recently picked up this example (Happy New Year) at an antique mall for just $3. It is backed by a long piece of silk (not shown) and has some damage (stains and chipping) in the upper right corner.

Rarer Forms of Paper Punch Embroidery

While I’ve found that mottos and bookmarks are the most common forms of this type of embroidery, others exist:

  • Samplers
  • Needle cases
  • Pin cushions
  • Boxes
  • Scissor holder
  • Baskets
  • Handkerchief holders

If you find one of these types while out vintage shopping–hurray!! That’s quite an accomplishment. Understandably, their values exceed those of more common pieces.

Where to Find Paper Punch Pieces

You can find paper punch collectibles at almost any place that you can find vintage and antiques, including antique malls, estate sales, flea markets, garage sales, and thrift stores. I’ve found them at all of these!

Because so few people know about them, they are often tremendously undervalued. As I mentioned, I discovered the Happy New Year at an antique mall for just $3!

Be sure to look in old Bibles as that’s where they were often used, especially those with spiritual sayings.

Paper Punch Values

While prices for paper punch projects have dropped over the past 10-20 years, as have many Victorian collectibles, they nonetheless continue to sell, though for less money.

The key, of course, is to buy them for a little money as possible.

Here are some very general values for excellent condition pieces:

  • Mottos: $60-125.
  • Bookmarks and keepsakes: $25-50
  • Rarer pieces: $40-150+

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What to Look For in Paper Punch Embroidery

1. Very good condition (whenever possible)

As with most other collectibles, you want to buy pieces that are in excellent to very good condition.

Unfortunately, with perforated paper embroidery, this can be difficult as examples are about 100 or more years old(!). Slight water damage to and chipping of the paper are not uncommon.

In addition, the frames, particularly the Victorian style are often a bit loose and/or the corner leaves missing.

Keep in mind that these are hobbiest projects, so all the pieces–embroidery, backing, and hanger would have been put together by amateurs.

If prices are very low, I would consider picking up pieces in good or fair condition and then pricing them accordingly for resale.

2. Bright colors

Sadly, homeowners often hung embroidery of all types in places where the sun could reak havoc. As a result, I often come across mottos that show severe fading, making them both less attractive and difficult to read.

Look for pieces that still have all or some of their original vibrancy.

3. Attractive sayings

I find that pieces with overly spiritual mottos, like Thy Will Be Done take longer to sell than those with more generic sayings like Welcome to All.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t pick them up for resale, just keep in mind they may hang around for a time.

4. Easily read

Embroidery on some of the mottos especially can be difficult to read due to the highly stylized typography (or damage to the embroidery). Those that can be easily read tend to sell better.

5. Simple frames vs. Victorian Eastlake styles

In my experience, mottos in simpler walnut frames with a gold interior frame have a better chance of selling than those with Victorian frames.

Conclusion

I hope you’ve learned a thing or two about paper punch embroidery and that it has encouraged you to hunt some down when you are out shopping for antiques.

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8 Comments

  1. I sold one of these a few years ago after it hung in my booth for about 2 years. I was determined to sell it as the proceeds were going to the local senior center! I believe it said Peace Be Unto This House. it was in rough shape but sold for about $75 if I remember right.

  2. Thanks for this information. very irrelevant but there is a poem “The Old arm Chair” by Eliza Cook – dates from 1840’s she published in women’s periodicals

  3. Very informative post; thank you for all your research. I’ve only seen these in antique stores. I have several 8.5×11″ pieces of the paper (not vintage) and I thought I’d use it for a mini project–small baskets probably. I know I don’t have the patience to try a sampler; I prefer simple embroidery like pillowcases!

    1. You’re welcome Kathy! So glad you enoyed the article. Sounds like a great use for that paper–we want to see photos when you’re done!!

  4. Oh, what a treasure. It brought to mind so many precious memories of my own dear mother. Thank you. I’ll share it with my sisters, (if I can figure out how). 🙂

    1. That blesses me to hear Peg! So glad you enjoyed the article. [To send a link to your sisters on a laptop: highlight the URL address in the search bar (at the top of the screen), right click, click copy, then paste it into an email. On your phone, click the box with the arrow coming out the top, click message icon to send via text.]

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