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The Art of Embroidery

Updated on December 1, 2016
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The decoration of fabric with ornamental stitching, embroidery is a very ancient art and is mentioned in the Old Testament; embroidered wrappings have been found on mummies dating from the fifteenth century BC. Embroidery reached the peak of its development during the Middle Ages, and the finest work was produced in England. The Syon Cope, embroidered in the thirteenth century, is a particularly good example of the beautiful work of this period. Historically, the most important work is the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts the events of the Norman Conquest. This work is misnamed, because it is not a tapestry at all but a piece of embroidery. Tapestry is a related craft but differs in that the design is worked into the warp, becoming a part of the fabric.

There are many different kinds of embroidery stitches, all of which create their own special effect in the finished work. They include stem stitch, satin stitch, button-hole stitch, cross stitch and many more. Applique work is a particular type of embroidery in which pieces of material in different designs and colours are stitched onto the basic cloth to form part of a larger design.

The Long History of Embroidery

Embroidery differs from tapestry in that the design is stitched on the top of a woven material, whereas in tapestry the design is woven into it. It differs from needlework in degree rather than in kind; since, while needlework is primarily concerned with use and embroidery primarily with ornament, much needlework is purely ornamental.

The earliest known woven work consists of three linen fragments, found in the tomb of Thothmes IV at Thebes, Egypt (15th Cent. B.C.), and now in the Cairo Museum. The technique is that of tapestry, as the pattern (lotus leaves, papyrus blooms, etc.) is worked into the warp and not superimposed on the finished material. Of the needlework of the Aegean, Babylonian, and Assyrian civilizations we have no trace; but we can infer the existence of the art from references in Homer, from frescoes, and from sculptural reliefs. Frescoes from Tiryns (Peloponnesus) and wall-paintings from Thebes (Egypt) make this quite clear. On the relief from the palace at Susa (now in the British Museum) are figures of soldiers wearing long robes ornamented with some kind of embroidery. Further, we learn from the Bible that the robes of Aaron included a "broidered coat".

Embroidery was well known to the ancient Greeks. Every four years a new embroidered tunic, or peplos, was made for the statue of Athena in the Parthenon at Athens; the presentation of the garment was attended with solemn ritual, as it was carried in the Panathenaic procession. Some Greek embroideries, ascribed to the 4th-3rd Centuries. B.C., which were found in 1872 in a grave at Kerch, in the Crimea, attest to Greek familiarity with the -art.

The Romans worked in embroidery, attributing its invention to the Phrygians. Attains II of Pergamum is said to have invented the art of embroidering in gold, though we read in the Psalms (xlv. 13, 14) of the King's daughter having clothing of "wrought gold", and being brought unto the king "in raiment of needlework". The mummy-wrappings from the tombs of Upper Egypt (to the 5th Cent. A.D.) include fragments of embroidery showing Roman influence. Byzantine embroidery is characterized by rigidity and lack of inspiration, and, from the 6th to the 12th Cent., Byzantine art influenced the whole of Europe. A noted example is the so-called dalmatic of Charlemagne (.preserved at St. Peter's, Rome), now generally attributed to the 12th Cent. After the capture of Constantinople in 1204 by the Latin crusaders, the Norman kings of Sicily replaced the Byzantine emperors as patrons of the arts, and Palermo became the artistic centre of Europe.

Henceforth the .art developed along national lines. The most elaborate garments were the vestments of the priests, though the dress of private individuals was often richly ornamented. A striking example of possibly English 12th Cent, needlework is the Bayeux Tapestry. By the 13th Cent, the best embroidery in Europe was being made in England, a well-known example being the Syon cope (now in a London museum). Though the quality fell off in the 14-15th Centuries., the Tudor period was characterized by magnificence in dress; the portraits of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I are familiar. About this time petit point needlework became known; this is a form of embroidery in which wool or silk is worked into material having an open mesh, such as canvas; the material being completely covered by the needlework. A coarser method is known as gros -point. The French names of these styles suggest that they were introduced from France.

After the Reformation, embroidered church vestments temporarily went out of favor, and during the Commonwealth the dress of private individuals was devoid of ornament; but after the Restoration and during most of the 18th Century, women's dresses and men's coats and waistcoats were often richly embroidered. Indeed, right up to the end of the 19th Cent, a "figured" waistcoat was considered to be an elegant article of men's attire. During the same period embroidery was applied also to curtains, coverlets, and hangings. The art was expressed equally skilfully in smaller objects, such as samplers, silk pictures (both portraits and landscapes), maps, and work-box covers. Applique work, too, has a long history. In this work, cloth or silk patterns are sewn on to a piece of woven material, and the edges are embroidered.

While the art developed in Europe along national lines, except in Spain where Eastern influence was naturally strong during the Aloorish occupation, it flourished also in India and the Far East. Chinese embroidery is perhaps the most intricate of all. Not only is the needlework itself beyond reproach, but the fabric on which it is worked is previously ornamented. In Indian work, on the other hand, the most exquisite needlework is often seen on very poor fabric, with the result that the material wears out before the design. Frequently gold thread and occasionally small pieces of looking-glass are introduced into the pattern.


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    • blastostitch profile image

      blastostitch 6 years ago

      Wow. What a great and thorough history on a timeless craft that keeps going strong.

    • theprintcenter profile image

      theprintcenter 6 years ago from Sacramento, CA

      Very interesting hub, its great to read about where modern embroidery came from. Now its all automated and done by machines, which sorta takes the art and creativity out of it.

    • craftybegonia profile image

      craftybegonia 7 years ago from Southwestern, United States

      Very nice hub. My grandma used to embroider by machine. I wish I knew how to do it!