History Of Embroidery

In this abbreviated history of embroidery, I will be explaining what embroidery is, how it first came to be, how it has evolved over the centuries and how it continues to progress in modern times.

What Is Embroidery

Embroidery is a textile craft that utilizes a needle and thread or yarn to decorate fabric or other materials with stylized designs comprised of cleverly executed stitches.  The stitching is usually sewn by hand.  This method is commonly referred to as freehand embroidery.  This is to differentiate it from machine embroidery which I’ll discuss later on.  As one becomes more adept at this art, other decorative elements such as beads, sequins, feathers and charms can be incorporated into the design.

To achieve truly wonderful results takes patience, diligence, care and practice.  Lots and lots of practice.  It takes time to learn which of the wide variety of embroidery stitches available to use to achieve the desired effect and texture.  It is, however, time well spent as the final results will be splendid.

Origins and Types Of Embroidery

Cro Magnon Village Image from www.freerepublic.com

It was probably primitive man who first laid down the foundation for needle crafts.  He discovered that durable threads could be created from animal sinew or plant fibres and that crude needles could be fashioned from bone and ivory.  With these simple implements, pre-historic people were able to stitch animal skins together and fashion clothing that would protect them from the elements and keep them warm.  It wasn’t long before they realised that these same stitches could also be used to embellish their clothes.  As time passed, these stone-age artisans became more creative.  They began adding beads, stones, and bones to their designs for further decoration.

Evidence of this practice was discovered in 1964 at an archaeological dig in Sungir near Vladimir, Russia.  The fossilized remains of a Cro-Magnon, believed to have lived around 30,000BC, were unearthed.  His fur clothes, boots and hat had been enhanced by the addition of horizontal rows of ivory beads.  Could this have been early man’s attempt at bead embroidery?

Detail of embroidered silk gauze ritual garment from a 4th century BC, Zhou era tomb at Mashan, Hubei province, China. Image from wikipedia.org

As an art form, embroidery’s origins can be traced back to the Iron Age (1300BC-600BC).  However, Chinese thread embroidery, which dates as far back as 3500BC may possibly have been the forerunner of modern-day embroidery.  Samples from the Zhou Dynasty era (1045BC-246BC) in China have somehow managed to survive.  Among them is an embroidered silk gauze garment dating from the Warring States period (9475BC-221BC).  The stitching in this sample includes satin and chain stitch embroidery worked in silk thread.  These stitches are usually the first ones an embroiderer learns to sew and they are still very much in use today.  However, the precise time period when embroidery came to be will probably remain unknown.

Archaeological digs have uncovered many artefacts that help convey a slice of life from civilisations that existed thousands of years ago.  Among these items are sculptures, paintings and vases which date as far back as 3,000 years.  These objects are decorated with images of citizens from various ancient societies such as Greek, Babylonian and Syrian wearing clothing enhanced with intricate embroidered designs.

Mosaics from the ancient Greek city of Byzantium illustrate scenes where the people of the time are attired in clothing richly embroidered with silk thread, precious stones and pearls.

Mosaic of the Empress Theodora bringing her offerings and her court at San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy c.547. Image from byzantineempire.info

In 1544, an excavation in Ur, Sumer, the area that we now know as Iraq, recovered a woven shroud enriched with pure gold thread embroidery.  Dating back to 400AD, this article demonstrated a high standard of thread embroidery.  Unfortunately, for the embroidery enthusiast, this garment did not survive.  Instead of preserving it for future generations to admire, the gold used to create the shroud was melted down.  What became of the ensuing 36 lbs of molten gold is unknown.  It may have been kept as a prize or sold on.

In many cultures such as Persian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Greek, medieval and Baroque European, detailed embroidered clothing, religious objects and household items have been the hallmark of wealth and prestige.

Various cultures such as northern Vietnam, Mexico and Eastern Europe all have their own distinctive style of embroidery.  The designs woven into the fabrics are infused with imagery derived from their own unique histories and traditions.    Many of these beautiful creations still survive today.

Embroidery on the royal clothes, Forbidden City, Hue, Vietnam. Photo from www.flickr.com/ twenty_questions/

Embroidery has endured over the centuries because the methods for creating the myriad array of stitches have been passed down from generation to generation.  In medieval England, embroidery workshops called Opus Anglicanum or ‘English work’ enjoyed a high reputation throughout Europe.

Opus Anglicanum (Chasuble) England, late 15th century. Photo from flickr.com/peterjr1961

This needle craft wasn’t limited solely to adorning clothing and household items.  Historical events were often recorded onto fabric.  The most famous example of this is the 231-foot long Bayeux Tapestry.  Despite its name, this masterpiece is not a tapestry at all.  It is an embroidery.  It depicts important events which led to the Norman invasion of England and the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  It is currently on exhibit in a special museum in Bayeux, Normandy.  There is also a replica of the embroidery on display in Reading, Berkshire.

Invasion fleet on Bayeux Tapestry. Image from commons.wikimedia.org

By the 1500s, embroideries had become more lavish throughout Europe as well as the rest of the world.  Elaborate thread and bead embroidery continued to gain popularity throughout the continent and by the 1700s bead embroidery could be found on layette baskets, court dress, home furnishings and many other items.

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century heralded a new era of innovation.  It was during this time that Berlin wool work began to gain in popularity.

Victorian Berlin woolwork chair cover. Photo from flickr.com/photos/interchangeableparts/

Berlin wool work is a canvas thread embroidery worked in wool using petit point stitches only.  The end result was a three-dimensional effect achieved by careful shading.  The design patterns were published on charted paper, similar to cross stitch patterns.  Because of this, embroiderers no longer needed to interpret the pattern into wool colours.  It was spelled out for them in the chart.  This coupled with only using one type of stitch, made completion of Berlin wool work projects much easier.

The patterns for Berlin wool work designs were usually published on single sheets making them more affordable for the average stitcher.  Add to this the fact that for the first time in history women actually had leisure time to devote to needle crafts, and you’ve got a recipe for a very successful craft indeed.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 in Great Britain as well as the arrival of women’s magazines such as ‘The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine’ helped spread the word about Berlin wool work.  It soon became a craze both in Britain and the USA.

By the 1870s, interest in Berlin wool work was diminishing as art needlework and counted cross stitch began to take hold.

Original design for Trellis wallpaper by William Morris, 1862. Image from commons.wikimedia.org

Designer and artist William Morris championed the Arts and Crafts Movement and is thought to have brought back freehand embroidery techniques.  Art needlework was based on the English embroidery style of the Middle Ages through to the 18th century.  The emphasis was placed on the delicate shading achieved with the satin stitch worked with silk thread.  This was in sharp contrast to the brightly-coloured Berlin wool works that had preceded it.

Much of the embroidery we see today is done by machines.  Machine embroidery is used to apply monograms, logos and emblems onto mass produced items such as shirts, uniforms and jackets.  It is also used by hobbyists for personal sewing and drafting projects.

Right now, in fact, I’m looking at a present my youngest daughter gave me for Mother’s Day.  It is a small teddy bear holding an equally diminutive placard with the epithet ‘Best Mummy’ embroidered on it.  Upon closer inspection, I can see how perfect the small, satin stitches are.   It is this perfection that tells me this was done by machine.

Example of Machine Embroidery

Machine embroidery is so prevalent now that many people have come to associate the term ‘embroidery’ with the more modern machine creations than with the classic freehand embroidery.

Machine embroidery falls into two basic categories:  free motion and computerized.

With free motion machine embroidery, the designs are created using a basic zigzag sewing machine.  This involves running the sewing machine while carefully moving a hooped fabric under the needle to create even stitches.  You would need to be a highly skilled machine operator in order to create ‘embroidered’ designs with the limited amount of stitch options on a standard sewing machine.

Computerized embroidery machines are available for both commercial and domestic use.  The principles for both types of machines are pretty much the same.  They are both equipped with a hoop or frame which holds the fabric securely in place beneath the sewing needle.  Reading from an embroidery design file, the machine moves the hooped material around automatically to create a stitched design.  Varying degrees of operator handling may be required depending on the capabilities of the embroidery machine in question.  For example, domestic machines require a real human to change the thread once the machine is finished using a particular colour or if the spool runs out of thread.

Brother SE-400 Computerized Embroidery and Sewing Machine Photo from Amazon.com

I’ve seen demonstrations of these machines at several craft fairs and they are fascinating.  I could watch them all day.  While I don’t deny the end results are pretty and flawlessly executed, I often find myself thinking, ‘Yes, but where’s the love?’  Machine embroidery certainly has a place in modern textile production, but I don’t feel it could ever replace the richness, texture and character of a hand stitched work.

In this article I’ve gone over what embroidery is, reviewed its origins and how it has evolved.  This is nowhere near a comprehensive history of embroidery, though.

If your interest has been piqued and you want to learn more about embroidery, your first stop should be your local library.  Don’t be shy about asking the librarian for suggestions.  That’s what librarians are for.  Craft fairs are also a good place to get information on needle crafts.  There are always specialty stalls run by experts.  They are a brilliant source of knowledge and advice and can recommend books that specialize in your field of interest.

And let’s not forget the World Wide Web.  There are literally hundreds of sites bursting with facts and trivia.  You’ll be spoiled for choice.


Gold & Silver Embroidery by Kit Pyman, Search Press, Ltd., Tunbridge Wells, Kent, 1987

Victorian Embroidery by Barbara Morris, Universe Books, New York, NY, 1962

Mary Thomas Embroidery Book by Mary Thomas, Dover Publications, NY, 1983

A History of Costume, by Carl Kohler, Edited by Emma Von Sichart, David McKay Company, Inc., NY, (no date)

The Art of Oriental Embroidery by Young Y. Chung, Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1979

Embroidery and Fabric Collage by Eirian Short, Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1967

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