Monthly Archives: November 2013

E is for Embroidery

Embroidery, simply, is a decorative style of stitching.

Similar to regular stitching, which keeps the seams or edges of clothing together to construct a garment, simple and more complex stitches can be used in a way to add interest to a piece of cloth. Embroidery has been used throughout history as a way to pattern cloth, and patterns can be in repeat, like a pattern of points or shapes repeated over and over, or more freeform motifs like birds or flowers on a piece of cloth. Embroidery can also incorporate beads, sequins, and other small decorative objects to add sparkle or texture.

AskFibres Embroidery

Similar to cross stitch, embroidery is a more free form way of stitching cloth. As one of my fibres teachers put it, “It’s a way of painting with thread.” Also, check out my handiwork on the left! Embroidery is completed where a piece of fabric is stretched over a wood hoop, and held in place with a second hoop that has a tightening mechanism. This establishes tension over the fabric, making it much simpler to stitch. Simple stitches like a running stitch or back and forth stitch can be used to create more complex motifs, and others like a chain stitch, add visual interest. Because of its labour intensive process, embroidery was usually worn by the wealthier classes throughout history. Embroidery has a history across the world. Many cultures figured out that a simple needle and thread could create stunning patterns on plain fabric. The earliest examples of decorative stitching date to the 3rd and 5th century BC in China. In China and Japan, silk robes were embroidered with real gold thread for royalty, and embroidery has been used to decorate saree fabric. (pictured)

Examples of embroidery also come from the Medieval Islamic world, examples from the Ottoman Empire, Iran and Mongolia, are well documented. In most societies, embroidered clothing was a sign of wealth, across Islamic states flags, garments, religious objects were embroidered, as objects could be ornamented without disobeying the law of images. In England, work by guilds and professional embroiderers was called Opus Anglicanum, and became famous across Europe. (pictured) This work decorated lots of religious objects, and garments for priests.

Embroidery is usually made on fabric in a contrasting colour, so the pattern stands out more easily. It can also be done in an eye-straining white on white, which emphasizes the texture and pattern. Interestingly, it is one of the few crafts which technology has not altered significantly: It is a striking fact that in the development of embroidery … there are no changes of materials or techniques which can be felt or interpreted as advances from a primitive to a later, more refined stage. On the other hand, we often find in early works a technical accomplishment and high standard of craftsmanship rarely attained in later times.¹ Historical hand embroidery is as fine as it is today, and arguable even finer, as the difference in the way labour is done today and historically has changed significantly. Contrast that with the developments in something like Stonemasonry, where the combustion engine simplified the more difficult tasks of stonemasons, the embroidery needle is the same as it ever was, barring any minor details.²

Embroidery today is made by machines. The art of embroidery was one of the crafts altered by the Industrial Revolution, and embroidery machines today can make complex designs very quickly. If you have an embroidered garment it’s 99% likely done on a machine. Designs can be made with multiple threads, on delicate fabric, and at a scope thousands of times greater than historically.

Some galleries to click through:

White work explined by the Royal School of Needlework here

The woman who designed and stitched patterns of embroidery for the TV show Game of Thrones has displayed her work online. Gorgeous motifs of birds, lions, dragons, etc. See her work here

English embroidery in the Late Tudor era at the Metropolitan Museum here.

A Noh costume with crests- super interesting!

1. Coatsworth, Elizabeth: “Stitches in Time: Establishing a History of Anglo-Saxon Embroidery”, in Netherton and Owen-Crocker 2005


Erring in Fibre

I wonder if you might address the issue of spelling ‘fibre’. I thought in the United States all kinds of fibre, textile and dietary, are spelled fiber, while in Canada dietary fiber is also spelled that way and textile fibre is spelled fibre.

The reason for this is because until the early 1700’s English spelling wasn’t standardized. Multiple dictionaries published at that time would show the spelling conventions on more of a regional level in the States and across the British Empire. Two works, Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, from 1755 and Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language from 1828 are the basis for English and American spelling, respectively. Back then, Webster was even a proponent of Spelling Reform, which worked to ensure spelling in the English language was more consistent and phonetic.

Today, Americans use the American standards for spelling, color, labor, modeling, center, liter (even though they don’t use that either) neighbor, and fiber, and the Brits and other countries that were formerly members of the British Empire, Canada, India, Australia, New Zealand, etc, use the British form*. Officially, Canada uses the British standards, but pockets of Canadians don’t bother with adhering to those conventions. Not that it bothers me, or anything. Institutions like the government, media networks, publishing houses, and official bodies will use the British standards, but it’s not like there’s a language police who can monitor whether people are putting u’s in the right places. Oh, wait, there is. Well, those police don’t really concern themselves with the u’s in English.

Many words in English which end with -re, originate in the French, Latin, or Greek languages. Fibre is derived from the Latin fibra, meaning filament, or entrail (ew) and was incorporated into English from Middle French around the 16th century. When English became more common, the American standards changed the -re suffix to -er. Words like lustre, sombre, theatre are luster, somber, and theater in American English. The e before the r is kept in place in American-derived forms of nouns and verbs, like the noun fiber.

Though the spelling is different, both words mean textile fibre as well as dietary fibre in their respective spelling standards. There is not two spellings for two definitions. Remember that in Milwaukee, asking someone if they’re getting enough fibre means the same thing as in Manchester.


Other fibrous misnomers are addressed here.

*colour, labour, modelling, centre, litre, neighbour, and fibre, in case you weren’t paying attention in English classes.