I finished a dreadful paper earlier this week about Renaissance needlework, and through the course of my research, I found a very popular needlework tract called The needles excellency*. Published by John Taylor in 1631, The needles excellency (download here) is a pattern book, designed--so Susan Frye, Jones & Stallybrass, etc. say--for women of the lower gentry who wanted to emulate the needlework of their social betters, who could afford to hire professional embroiderers to draw them any design they wanted. By the seventeenth century, you could, apparently, get the designs drawn (printed?) on the cloth for you at the printer's**. The book begins with a moderately hilarious poem about how great needlework is ("Hey, it's pretty useful, and it keeps the ladies from talking too much") and five sonnets about famous (dead) needleworkers: Catharine of Aragon, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth, Mary Sidney, and someone named Elizabeth Dormer, who I've never heard of***.
More to the point, though, the motifs themselves are pretty nifty, and I think some of them could be easily adapted to colorwork projects for knitting. In this post, I've linked to some of the decorative designs that I liked best; in subsequent posts, I'll link to some less abstract motifs. The top image has my two favorites: the designs are bold and crisp and would lend themselves to multiple-color fair isle really well. (Click on the images for a much, much larger view.)
*This being the seventeenth century, a time of verbose and specific book titles, the full title is The needles excellency a new booke wherin are diuers admirable workes wrought with the needle. Newly inuented and cut in copper for the pleasure and profit of the industrious.
**I think I'm citing Frye here.
***It's a bit of a motley crew--the women are clearly invoked for their celebrity, but why these particular women, I don't know. The sonnets make much of the former three as a line of queens. Elizabeth was sort of widely known to have abandoned her needlework when she assumed the throne. The most famous needleworker, at least in the late sixteenth century, was probably Mary Stuart, that notorious Catholic thorn in Elizabeth's side.