September 2009

History of Embroidery

Embroidery is the art of decorating fabric with geometric or floral designs by stitching on the surface. Embroidery can be done using a needle with thread, yarn, or even metal strips. In addition, beads, precious, and semi-precious stones can be added to the piece.

Historians trace embroidery to Iron Age when man discovered stitching animal hide to make clothing. People realized that they could decorate the hide by hand stitching patterns onto it. Beautiful samples of ancient embroidery can be found in Egypt, Persia (today’s Iran), India, and China. Each country has its own distinct patterns which show the culture and the environment in which the patterns were produced.

Embroidered garments have always been a sign of wealth. Court garments in Byzantium were all embroidered and were inspired by Persian and Italian designs. Pearls, gold and silver thread were used to enhance the patterns. During 9th and 10th century, the Byzantine designs were used for church vestments throughout Europe.

In 13th to 15th century England, using silk and gold thread was prevalent. Their work of stitching images of Saints on vestments was famous. This type of embroidery was called English-work.

During 15th and 16th century, famous painters in Italy would create designs that were later stitched on cloth. This type of work was called needle painting. In 16th century, embroidery on vestment was done in convents and monasteries. During same era, decorative embroidery was widespread especially white on white embroidery for linen and peasant costumes. This type of work gave rise to cut work embroidery which was later developed into lace making.

Since Spain was under Moorish rule for a long time, Spanish embroidery was inspired by Islamic motifs and colors. They used wool from black sheep to embroider on white linen. When taken to England by the first wife of Henry VIII, this type of embroidery gave birth to Black-work. In Germany, crewel embroidery became popular and was used to decorate everyday items. In Eastern Europe, embroidery became a folk art and was used to decorate pillows, towels, sheets, and all household items in vibrant colors.

In 17th century, a limited number of printed pattern books were available. Although all the previous methods of embroidery were still in use, two techniques were dominant, stump-work and wool-work. In stump-work, designs were raised into reliefs creating biblical scenes. These pieces were used to decorate objects such as boxes and mirrors. In Jacobean wool-work, large scene of birds and leaves and flowers were embroidered onto fabrics that were used for wall-hangings, curtains, and bedspreads.

In the 18th century, embroidery on men and women’s clothing was very fashionable. White work on cuffs and collars from Saxony became very famous.

In 19th century, after the French revolution, simpler types of embroidery such as Tulle-Embroidery became popular, and so did appliqué-work. However, the most popular technique of this era was needlepoint. Since this type of embroidery began in Berlin and printed patterns on canvas were produced there, needlepoint was called Berlin-work. Needlepoint was popular around the world.

After the invention of sewing machines and later sewing machines capable of doing embroidery, embroidery on all sorts of garments and household items has become more popular. Although machine embroidery is very beautiful, it cannot replace the beauty of hand embroidery.

Needlecraft University offers Silk Ribbon embroidery classes. Check out our class schedule and library.

For more information about history of embroidery, check out: http://www.alitadesigns.com

Nazanin S. Fard

Needlecraft University

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