Embroidery is an ancient form of needlework that has been used worldwide to embellish textiles for decorative and communicative purposes. In terms of form and aesthetics, embroidery may add color, texture, richness, and dimension. Used on clothing, it may reveal the wearer’s wealth, social status, ethnic identity, or systems of belief. Typically, embroidery is executed in threads of cotton, wool, silk, or linen, but may also incorporate other materials such as beads, quills, metal, shells, or feathers. Some materials, techniques, and stitches occur across many cultures, while others are specific to region.
The origins of this art form, mentioned in the Bible and in Greek mythology, are lost. Textile scholar Lanto Synge posits that it probably originated in China, and documents early surviving fragments that are estimated as being 4,500 years old. In South America embroideries from the fifth century B.C.E. have been recovered from tombs.
Throughout the history of embroidery, religious institutions have been among its greatest patrons. For example, the Medieval church in Europe fostered one of the greatest peaks in needlework history—Opus Anglicanum (English work). A type of needlework made in England during the Middles Ages, it was widely exported throughout Europe. Worked by highly skilled professionals in embroidery workshops, Opus Anglicanum was known for its artistry of ecclesiastical vestments. The sophisticated embroideries, made with the finest linens and velvets, were worked with silk threads in a split-stitch technique and also utilized an underside couching technique to secure the decorative gold and silver threads. Couching is an embroidery technique in which threads are laid in a design on the surface of a base fabric and sewn to the fabric with small stitches that cross over the design threads. The religious designs were well conceived and executed in a form of needlepainting, or acupictura. Figures of the Virgin Mary and the saints as well as religious scenes were executed in flowing circles and geometric patterns.
Opus Anglicanum illustrates the potential of embroidery as a conveyor of narrative and of ecclesiastical power; simultaneously, the courts of Europe applied embroidery to secular dress whose lavish decoration served to display secular power and prestige. During the Medieval period, the production and consumption of embroidery became increasing codified. Guilds regulated the training of professional embroiderers, while sumptuary laws attempted to restrict the wearing of embroidered garments to specific socioeconomic classes. Renaissance court costume was often elaborately embroidered with floral imagery. Inventories of Queen Elizabeth I’s wardrobe list gowns embroidered with roses, oak leaves, and pomegranates. As with Opus Anglicanum, metal thread work was employed to connote the prestige of the subject—in this case human rather than divine.
For centuries, European court dress was often lavishly embroidered as a signifier of status. Catherine of Aragon, arriving in England in 1501 with embroidered blackwork as part of her trousseau, is credited with encouraging the use of Spanish-style embroidery, rich in blackwork. Blackwork, which originated in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Islamic Egypt, is a type of embroidery stitched in monochrome on white or natural linen. Traditionally worked in black, it was also worked in red, blue, and dark green and often enriched with gold and silver threads. Geometric and scrolling patterns are executed in backstitch or double-running stitch, a reversible stitch used for edgings of collars and cuffs that could be seen on both sides. Little of this dress survives because it was worn out or recycled. It is through inventories and portraiture that much information about historic costume is gleaned. In portraits of Henry VIII and the royal family, Hans Holbein the Younger (1497 – 1543) so clearly defines the stitching technique used in their elaborate costumes that the double-running stitch is also known as the Holbein stitch. Eighteenth-century portraiture again reveals much about the elegance and refinement of embroidery on high society dress.
As has been the case across many time periods and cultures, embroidery was practiced in different settings, and by different levels of society. Both men and women worked in professional workshops, while women embroidered at home for domestic use and recreation. Additionally, producing embroidery at home for sale has been a means of economic sustenance for women in many cultures, as the following case illustrates.
Many countries have traditions of whitework embroidery, executed with white thread on a white ground. Hardanger—a counted thread technique originating in the west of Norway and brought by emigrants to the United States—Madeira cutwork, Dresden whitework, and Isfahani whitework are a few examples. In terms of application to dress, some of the most widely consumed whitework was produced in Scotland and Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The example of Ayrshire whitework provides a fascinating insight into the interaction of professional designers, workshops, individual women, and commercial and philanthropic interests within the fashion system.
This intricate whitework was characterized by floral motifs worked with fine cotton thread on a cotton ground, typically in satin stitch, stem stitch, and needlepoint in-filling. Labor-intensive and delicate in appearance, it was used to decorate babies’ christening gowns, women’s dress, and undergarments. Its production was highly organized by commercial firms and philanthropic organizations concerned with improving living standards in rural areas. A woodblock or lithograph design was printed on the cloth, which was then distributed to individual households, and executed by women and children. With agents as intermediaries, the finished cloths were sent to depots in large cities, made up into garments, and sold in Britain or exported to Europe and America. By the mid-nineteenth century, Ayrshire whitework was a significant industry, with an individual firm contracting with 20,000 to 30,000 workers.
Against this context another distinctive embroidery movement in Scotland evolved—that of the Glasgow School of the early twentieth century. Influential teachers such as Jessie Newberry and Ann Macbeth revolutionized the teaching of embroidery, stressing self-expression in design, and a more simplified approach to form, typically incorporating appliqué outlined in satin stitch.
Embroidery and Couture
Because of its decorative potential as well as its ability to connote status, hand embroidery was from the beginning included in the battery of haute couture’s specialized techniques. The lavishly time-intensive, specialized nature of the art, and the costliness of the materials, made it the ultimate signifier of luxury. Embroidery houses, employing highly talented designers and technicians, became an integral part of the couture industry. The most famous of these was the House of Lesage.
It is fitting that Charles Frederick Worth, designer of the Empress Eugenie’s court clothing, was a master in the incorporation of embroidery as a status confirming (or conferring) accoutrement. An early design that won a medal at the 1855 Exposition Universelle was of bead-embroidered moire. Jeanne Lanvin typically eschewed patterned fabrics for embroidery. She was one of the first designers to exploit the use of machine embroidery, incorporating parallel line machine stitching as a decorative motif.
Designers such as Mary McFadden and Zandra Rhodes have adopted embroidery, with a particular interest in the manipulation of textiles for artistic effect. When combined with other techniques such as stenciling, batik, quilting, or handpainting, embroidery draws attention to the textile as a rich surface, rather like a canvas. In other cases designers use embroidery to float over the surface fabric. Dior was a master of this illusionary approach to embroidery, which ignores seamlines and construction, creating its own field of vision.
Ethnic embroidery inspirations have long infused couture, from Lanvin’s designs of the 1920s to Yves Saint Laurent’s “peasant” blouses and skirts. Other designers have mined long-established associations between embroidery and femininity; the sensuous aesthetic of Nina Ricci and Chloé is often heightened by delicate embroidery.
All cultures have traditions of embroidery. Influences and cross-fertilizations can be traced across trade routes and patterns of migration. In other cases, techniques and stitches are unique to geographic area.
China has a long and rich tradition of embroidery centered on the ceremonial dress of the Imperial court. From the Tang dynasty (618 – 907) onward, silk ceremonial robes were heavily embroidered to communicate the status of the wearer within a strict hierarchy. Mythological creatures, birds, flowers, waves, and clouds were some of the panoply of forms used symbolically to situate the wearer, or allude to personal qualities or aspirations for longevity and good fortune.
The embroidery on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century robes reached an apogee of technical perfection. Motifs were meticulously rendered in satin stitch, chain stitch, and Chinese stitch—a form of backstitch interlaced with a second thread. Areas were intricately in-filled with tiny knots. As with Renaissance court dress in Europe and Medieval church vestments, liberal use of couched metal thread conveyed status and wealth.
Throughout the history of its production, the development of embroidery traditions has been fostered by imperial patronage. The Ottoman court in Istanbul was a major patron for embroidery. However, in the Ottoman Empire, embroidery was also highly integrated into everyday life. The court commissioned fine embroideries from workshops and professional women working at home, but the making of embroidered clothing and household items was part of most women’s everyday activities. Within the Empire embroidery was an important commercial and domestic enterprise. The major Ottoman embroidery style is dival, in which metal threads are secured to the ground with couching threads.
Native American embroidery also has its own culturally expressive characteristics. The techniques of porcupine quillwork and beading predate European explorers to North America. Traditionally, this decorative art was embroidered on skins, but after the arrival of Europeans and the subsequent acquisition of new materials, it was worked on cloth. All items of dress were embellished with needlework—coats, jackets, shirts, hoods, leggings, moccasins, and accessories such as medicine bags.
Of various techniques employed in quillwork embroidery, sewing was the most common method. Bone bodkins were used to accomplish these designs until the white trader brought needles to America. The stitch methods are similar to modern sewing terms used today: backstitch, couching stitch, and chain stitch.
Beading was another long-held practice of the Native Americans who initially used crude beads that they made from natural materials. Later, Europeans introduced finer quality beads known as trade beads that proved to be highly desirable to the Indian tribes in their embroideries. Beads were strung on thread and sewn onto the skin or cloth according to the pattern by either massing the beads in little rows or working them in an outline formation.
On one level, Native American embroideries communicate systems of beliefs. This too has been an important function of embroidery worldwide. One example is shishadur, or mirror work, practiced by the Baluchi people of western Pakistan, southern Afghanistan, and eastern Iran. Fragments of silvered glass attached to a cotton ground were believed to deflect evil. In Eastern Europe a folk belief that embroidered designs on clothing protected the wearer from harm infused the development of embroidery. Items of clothing such as dresses, blouses, skirts, aprons, shirts, vests, and jackets, as well as ecclesiastical vestments, were embellished with beautiful embroideries.
The unique appearance of Eastern European needlework comes from the precise use of materials, designs, techniques, and colors that when combined can often indicate a specific region of the country. Embroidery stitches in the straight, satin, and cross-stitch families are employed; but, for example, among the specialty stitches in Ukrainian embroidery are the Yavoriv stitch, a diagonal satin stitch, and the Yavoriv plait stitch, a variation on the cross-stitch.
In the early 2000s, embroidery remained a vibrant component of dress. In a global marketplace, designers and consumers may choose from an infinite variety of world traditions. For example, mirror work was absorbed into western fashion trends of the 1970s, and has periodically resurfaced as a trend in clothing and home furnishings. Embroidery has remained a pervasive element of couture and has had an enormous influence on ready-to-wear. As sewing machines for the home sewer become increasingly sophisticated, the application of machine embroidery to home-sewn clothing has burgeoned. And, possibly as a reaction to mass-production, a thriving industry has grown around the provision of custom embroidery as a means of personalizing dress.
Embroidery. London: The Embroiderers’ Guild. An informed periodical with articles on historic, ethnographic, and contemporary embroidery, exhibition, and book reviews.
The Essential Guide to Embroidery. London: Murdoch Books, 2002.
Gostelow, Mary. Embroidery: Traditional Designs, Techniques and Patterns from All Over the World. London: Marshall Cavendish Books Ltd., 1982. Useful for a cross-cultural perspective of embroidery.
Harbeson, Georgiana Brown. American Needlework: The History of Decorative Stitchery and Embroidery from the Late 16th to the 20th Century. New York: Coward McCann, Inc., 1938.
Krody, Sumru Belger. Flowers of Silk and Gold; Four Centuries of Ottoman Embroidery. London: Merrell Publishers Ltd., in association with The Textile Museum, Washington, D.C., 2000. Excellent discussion of a major embroidery tradition within its cultural context. Well-illustrated with close-up details, and glossary of stitches.
O’Neill, Tania Diakiw. Ukrainian Embroidery Techniques. Mountaintop, Pa.: STO Publications, 1984.
Parker, Rozsika. The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. New York: Routledge, 1984. Insight into the sometimes overlooked role of women as professional embroiderers and discussion of embroidery and the construction of femininity.
Swain, Margaret. Scottish Embroidery: Medieval to Modern. London: B. T. Batsford, Ltd., 1986. Useful discussion on methods of production and the role of embroidery as a commercial and domestic activity.
Swan, Susan Burrows. Plain and Fancy: American Women and their Needlework, 1650 – 1850. Rev. ed. Austin, Tex.: Curious Works Press, 1995.
Swift, Gay. The Batsford Encyclopaedia of Embroidery Techniques. London: B. T. Batsford, Ltd., 1984. A comprehensive guide to techniques and their applications to historic clothing.
Synge, Lanto. Art of Embroidery: History of Style and Technique. Woodbridge, U.K.: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2001.