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.
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!