Embroidery is defined as the art of decorating fabric or other materials with a needle and thread. In addition to designs made by simple thread or yarn, you can also embroider with pearls, beads and sequins. Interestingly, the development of hand embroidery did not change much from early on, as far as techniques and materials are concerned. The Industrial Revolution included the invention of the sewing machine and large sewing machinery in the factories. Machines allowed for faster production and accurately measured designs. Though many at the time and still today, prefer the look and feel of hand embroidery over machine embroidery.
Let’s back up a bit though, to where we first see signs of embroidered fabrics. Early samples were found in Ancient Egypt, Northern Europe and parts of Asia. In China, during the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC) silk fabrics with a simple chain stitch style of embroidery was common. Silk was very symbolic of wealth and perhaps more difficult to embroider due to the thin nature of the material. Embroidery also marked a sign for high society in the Islam world during Medieval times. It was characteristic on unique and detailed rugs, flags, shoes and other clothing, as well as various uniforms of the time. Embroidered designs, were the extra effort put in when creating these items and thus was a mark of quality and accomplishment. This notion lead to the use of embroidery in artwork. Because of the breathtaking and different art that was being produced, other artists in Europe began to take notice. The highly religious culture of Europe at the time, took an interest in this art form and therefore we see embroidered cloaks, religious flags and other church decor created with embroidered designs.
Perhaps before it was even used to signify royalty and wealth, some researchers say that embroidery came about due to the need to patch and mend worn clothing. The holes and tears that developed from wearing clothes for a long time and washing them often, sparked an interest. You may be familiar with Norwegian or Swedish patterns that are embroidered on various winter coats or collectible doll clothing from parts of Scandinavia. The distinctive border along the bottom of coats and shirt collars, became a normal addition to clothing in that region as it added reinforcement to the fabric; helping it wear longer in the cold weather. This furthered the idea that embroidery came from a need not a want and after a while, instilled a desire for people to get more creative in their designs. So whether embroidery was born in the middle east to signify status or if it was created out of a necessity in various parts of Europe, today it is a beautiful craft that is recognized everywhere in the world.
Above in our Embroidery Lamp, you can see the exquisite embroidered details on the soft linen lamp shade. This flower pattern features primitive colors, that are supported by the red lamp base and evokes a folk art feel. As with stitching, knitting, crocheting and other forms of sewing, embroidery can be crafted in a number of different ways. The wool, linen and silk that were used throughout history are still used today with the addition of cotton, rayon and even ribbon. Firstly, there is a difference between surface embroidery and free form embroidery. Surface embroidery like our Embroidery Lamp example, is constructed through a series of counted thread. The detailed thread count and usual existing pattern allow for a precise measurement within and between designs. Another example of surface embroidery is the technique of needlepoint. Needlepoint’s accurate stitches can highlight different shades and details in color and design. An example at Sturbridge Yankee Workshop, is our Cat in Hat Pillow. Free Form Embroidery on the other hand, gives the artist more freedom in the design and typically is woven within the fabric as opposed to on top of it. This is seen in much of the historic fabric found in China and Japan. You may also see this type of embroidery on any embroidered canvas work; thicker and more dense canvas fabric works best.
Over the last 50 years or so the only real change in hand embroidery is the simple fact that patterns and design templates are more readily available to the public (something that would not have been the case for the peasants of Medieval Europe). As well as the embroidery loop, which is a circular tool that assists in keeping the fabric to be embroidered, in place without distorting the design or shape.