Embroidery: A 900-year history that deserves to be told

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Petra Bjelica
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A beautiful and intricate method of embellishing fabric, as well as a symbol of luxury and wealth, embroidery is a old art form of decorating clothing, bedding, and household goods with needle and thread.

Recently-found remains of hand-stitched and decorated clothing, boots, and hats show that embroidery was used by Cro-Magnons back in 30,000 BC. Examples of hand embroidery have been found in Siberia and China as well, dating from between 5,000 and 3,500 BC.

The art of embroidery up close. Photo credit

The art of embroidery was also popular in the time of Ancient Egypt when women decorated clothing using metallic threads. The opening of the tomb of the famous Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen revealed one of the oldest surviving examples of embroidery.

Embroidered piece with vivid threads by the Gurjars who live in India and Pakistan. Photo credit

The Orient and the Middle East are believed to be the cradle of embroidery and most of the needlework arts. It did not take long before ancient humans realized that the stitches used to join animal skins could also be used for embellishment. The trend of wearing thread-embroidered clothing soon spread among Babylonians, Phoenicians, and Hebrews, who furthered this artisanal craft.

Examples of embroidery found on Peruvian mummies, on Coptic pieces in Egypt, and at various sites in Central Asia prove that embroidery was already evolving in the first century AD. A wide range of Chinese, Indian, and Japanese embroideries and occasional groups of early medieval embroideries in Europe are among the surviving examples dating from the 8th–10th centuries AD.

Traditional Japanese embroidery on a festival cart. Photo credit

The world-famous Bayeux Tapestry is the oldest piece of embroidery, dating circa 1066. This 70-meter long tapestry is actually an embroidered composition recalling the Norman Conquest of England. Given its size and the fact that it is made up of several pieces, with differently joined borders, it is speculated that it took more than 100 people several years to complete the chef d’oeuvre, which today still hangs in the town of Bayeux in Normandy.

Sections of the 1066 medieval Bayeux Tapestry, re-created in Geraldine, New Zealand

Numerous collections throughout the world dating back to the twelfth century prove that the art of embroidery gained popularity in medieval times. The existence of embroiderers’ guilds in Europe as early as the Middle Ages indicates the importance that the long tradition of embroidery had in terms of both professional and amateur production. High-quality work was done in convents, particularly in Italy and France, the church being one of the most important customers for excellent embroidery. Embroidered pieces embellished all of the textiles used in the liturgy, and smaller seed pearls and beads sewn on vellum decorated religious items and clothing.

Embroidery was a highly appreciated craft by the church and used to decorate religious items and clothing. Photo credit

Another immensely popular type of embroidery at the time was canvas needlework, produced by both professionals and amateurs. At home, needlework was considered an essential skill of every well-bred young woman. Samplers were therefore produced, enabling women to acquire the art necessary to decorate clothing and mend linens. By the middle of the 14th century, however, the craze for needle and the thread disappeared as both design and workmanship declined.

Every well-bred young girl had to possess canvas needlework skills. Photo credit

Pattern books specifically intended to provide models for embroidery and lace appeared as early as the 16th century. While most of them were simply collections of black and white printed designs, more ambitious publications included hand-colored plates or even embroidery samples. Not only the style changed from the ecclesiastical to the secular, but also new materials and designs reached the European soil as the Age of Sail began. A ground made of linen, silk, or satin and sometimes even velvet or leather was embroidered in various colored wools or silks, often outlined in a golden or silver thread, bringing to life flowers, fruits, animals, birds, and insects. The charming patterns led to exaggerated and grotesque designs, giving way to poorer standards of taste, workmanship, and originality.

An embroidered bookbinding (England, 16th century)

The lace that embellished collars, sock, and gloves for the first time in the 17th century was one of the most important innovations in the fashion industry. However, the 18th century marked a turning point when embroidery became the highlight of fashion in France.

Lace was one of the most important innovations in the fashion industry. Photo credit

Known for extraordinary patterns, colorful as well as metallic and silk yarns and idyllic scenes, embroidered fashion soon became immensely popular in the everyday life of men, women, and children throughout the entire continent. These years also saw the heyday of buttons, which men favored to express their style. However, they became quite expensive due to their embellishment with precious stones and pearls. Quilting became another popular needlework technique.

A quilt illustrating Biblical motifs

Mothers taught their daughters to stitch and sew; the samplers done were passed down for generations or sold at auctions for fantastic amounts. As the century went by, embroidery was more considered as a decoration rather than a symbol of status since it was applied everywhere. The growth of trade with China and the Far East refreshed embroidery designs, introducing birds with wonderful plumage and elegant flowers alongside the traditional European forms. Besides the church, the nobility was a major customer for high-quality embroidery, which during Neoclassicism was applied on lighter and softer foundations such as silk crepe, cotton, and linen muslins. The embellishment of garments, furnishings, and decorations for everyday use and special occasions was often trusted to individual designers and embroiderers who worked at the court or in noble households.

A mid-eighteenth century English sampler in monochrome, by Elizabeth Laidman.

So-called white embroidery appeared in the early 19th century. White threads stitched on white fabric underlined the freshness, pureness, and youth of the female figure. For the first time, the arms were naked and the feet were bare, and the breast was shown in its natural shape. From 1830, fashion changed again, modifying the silhouette of the body as fabrics became heavier, decorated and printed. Samplers became popular once again, followed by the fashion for wool-work pictures. The development of sewing techniques led to the craze for artisan needlework and Berlin wool-work, which waned in popularity around the 1870s when counted cross-stitch appeared on the scene.

Woman’s Purse c. 1840. Cotton canvas with wool needlepoint (Berlin work), Europe.

Embroidered and ribbon-decorated corsets became vogue in the second half of the 19th century. Embroidery shops sprouted like mushrooms at the very end of the century, with women completing delicate stitches by hand. These shops were further mechanized when the first embroidery machine came along in 1880. Switzerland soon became the forerunner in embroidery design and technology, followed by the United States and numerous shops based in New York City and Chicago.

A piece of excellent embroidery. Christian Dior at a Moscow exhibition. Photo credit

The idea of high fashion illuminated the beginning of the 20th century, introducing the art of embroidery into the world of couture. Embroidery styles have changed over and over again ever since, but embroidery stitches and techniques have remained the same. Thanks to technological advances, embroidery is nowadays a computerized process of decorating, mimicking the elaborate handcraft of the past, but no less elegant, sophisticated or sought-after.

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