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Embroidery: History and How It's Made

1st May 2019

The history of embroidery sees the creation of raised threaded designs or embellishments. This can be on cloth, leather or paper.

The use and purpose of embroidery has fluctuated depending on time, location and the materials available which has resulted in extraordinary diversity. As famed embroiderer Saint-Aubin observed in 1770, “There is hardly a nation that does not embroider.

Embroidery Production

Embroidered materials are often opulent and eye-catching. They can, however, be glittering and brightly coloured or subtle and simple. The base fabric is generally woven but anything that can be perforated with a needle can be embroidered.

The most common technique for embroidery is the cross-stitch. Other techniques include chain-stitch, satin-whole-stitch, and button-whole-stitch. 

Throughout history, many different ground fabrics have also been used for embroidery. This includes cotton, linen, and silk. Here's how it all began.

The Very Beginning of Embroidery Designs

An expert on needlework, Catherine Leslie reveals that needles with eyes and beads made from stone were used by prehistoric people in 38,000 B.C.E. That was 30,000 years ago, before the existence of written language and therefore there is no written record of this. It is, however, thought that the earliest artworks were likely part of religious rituals.

The oldest surviving pieces of embroidered material date from approximately 2,000 B.C.E. and were found in Egyptian tombs. These artefacts include hem panels found on the tunic of the famous Egyptian pharaoh, Tutankhamun. 

(Right: Embroidered floral collar from the tomb of Tutankhamun, died 1323 B.C.E.)

History of Embroidery

Fifth to Eleventh Century Embroidery

Evidence shows that, by the fifth century, Chinese embroidery began to be traded across Korea and Japan. By the seventh century commerce had spread to Western Europe.

Sadly, few of these cloths survive today but the most famous tapestry is the Bayeux Tapestry. It is technically an embroidery and still exists. It is on display in Normandy, France. The 70-meter-long cloth was completed in 1077 and depicts the Battle of Hastings. This astounding work of art reveals how highly developed embroidery techniques were at this time. 

History of Embroidery

(A sample from the Bayeux Tapestry, 1077.)

History of Embroidery

(Embroidered Design (1676) from Nurnberg.)

History of Embroidery

(Embroidered banner from 19th Century Naples.)

Embroidery Designs for Cultural Purposes

Many cultures use embroidery as a portrayal of important life events as well as symbols of cultural identity. One example comes from the Punjab region of India. Traditionally the bride's grandmother embellishes the wedding shawl. The embroidered flowerwork is in orange or yellow silk thread.

Whereas, in China the embroidery of birds signifies the ranking of officials on garments and objects. Chinese embroideries most often use silk threads because ‘sericulture’ or silk production originated in China. This was around 3,000 B.C.E. Silk threads give the finished cloth a unique and shiny appearance that creates an almost glittered effect. 

The use of silk fabrics and threads spread from China throughout the world, transported along the ancient Chinese Silk Road by camel trains. Once they reached Europe, these products quickly became highly desirable luxury items. 

History of Embroidery

(Embroidered Muslin from mid-19th Century Madras, India.)

History of Embroidery

(Silk applique embroidery from the Ming Dynasty in China 1368-1644.)

History of Embroidery

(Map of the Silk Road, beginning in China.)

Changes to Embroidery Fabric in the 19th Century

Sadly, the expertise of hand embroidery needlework in Western countries has been largely lost to time. This is thanks to the invention of machine alternatives.

In 1855, the invention of the chain stitch machine marked the beginning of mass production of embroidered materials. These machines could make Tambour embroidery on net. (Tambour, also known as Broderie Chainette and Broderie de Lunéville, is a technique used for beaded embroidery).

Two years later in 1857, the first chain stitch sewing machine in the USA was patented. By 1858, it was starting to be difficult to distinguish between hand-stitched and machine-stitched embroidery. In the 1870s and 1880s, however, the Arts and Crafts movement created a revival of hand stitching that kept it prominent until 1910. 

History of Embroidery

(Advertisement for new brand of sewing machine from 19th Century USA.)

History of Embroidery

(May Morris’ notes and sketches from Embroidery lectures 1899-1902.)

History of Embroidery

(Jasmine Embroidery Fabric from Morris & Co. Part of the Arts and Crafts Movement.)

Modern Embroidery Designs

New and innovative ways of producing embroidery continue to emerge even today. Computerised embroidery machines can digitise patterns using sophisticated embroidery software. Machine embroidery is used to create logos and monograms for materials or clothing, as well as to decorate linens, draperies, and other fabrics.

There have also been exciting developments in free-hand machine embroidery, designed so that the user is able to produce free-motion embroidery. This is used in textile arts, quilting, dressmaking, home furnishings, and many more embroidered items.

Like many art forms, the techniques of embroidery have changed but the quality of the materials have not. Embroidery adds such depth and significance to fabric. It can be traditional and decorative or modern and patterned. Current embroidery designers such as Mulberry Home, Thibaut, and Designers Guild continue to offer a wealth of both.

The rich history of embroidery is a testament to the many ways embroidery can be used to create beautiful, timeless, precious and sacred pieces of fabric. 

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