a brief history of embroidery

This little blog explores the traditional craft of embroidery through the centuries and establishes the embroidery evolution from primitive stitching to contemporary textiles. Delving into the origins of embroidery and how it has shaped the world of textiles that we know today …

So what is Embroidery? ‘Embroidery is the handicraft of decorating fabric or other materials with needle and thread. Embroidery may also incorporate other materials such as beads, pearls, quills and sequins.’ I know, a rather generic definition taken straight from the dictionary, but stay with me!

Although the art of stitch is considered a simple process of passing thread through fabric with a sewing needle, embroidery is a historic craft which joins together hundreds of cultures and countries, with traditions spanning across thousands of years, it’s a diverse handicraft that holds many concepts and connotations.

I could start by making reference to maybe the Bayeux Tapestry or delving into the history of oriental embroidery, although a truly fascinating subject in its own right, I’ve decided to touch on a history of embroidery that we can all relate to. This is a blog that looks at the role of embroidery in the lives of women & communities and how this has established our perception of embroidery in the modern day.

A History of Samplers

The embroidered sampler could be considered a favourite pastime for textile traditions and holds a very rich history in British textile heritage. With examples spanning back to the 14th century and still created in modern day, a history of samplers deserves its very own blog post! Dating back to years gone by the sampler was in fact a rite of passage for young girls, a means for educating young women with vital skills to be used during married life. Consider it a stitch dictionary, a means of recording embroidery stitches, a practice of pattern and decoration. Embroidery was traditionally a craft for women, during years within the Tudor and Stuart periods it was considered inappropriate for girls and women to be educated, reading was prohibited leaving a woman restricted to more domesticated tasks.

Linen Sampler Embroidered with Silk, Unknown Maker, Germany 1500-50Photo: V&A Archives, Linen Sampler Embroidered with Silk, Unknown Maker, Germany 1500-50

The V&A Museum has around 700 samplers in its collection; a visit I couldn’t recommend enough, exploring embroidered samplers from hundreds years past is quite simply mind blowing. Studying a sampler gives us such a great insight into the life of the embroidress’, it paints a story that official documents never could. You’ll be surprised to see such young ages exquisitely embroidered into the sampler.

Embroidery is something which typically is passed down from one generation to the next; I have very fond, happy memories of both my Grandmothers and my mum teaching me to sew. Think back to who first taught you to sew on a button? Who sat with you as you threaded your first needle? Who helped you to knot the end of your thread? More often than not it will be someone very close to you. Not only did you learn vital skill, but an experience of bonding and creating with a loved one, a traditional skill that has been passed down from generations before you and something you can pass on to younger generations too!

Sewing Circles, ‘Stitch n Bitch’ and Community Quilts

Sewing in groups, in workshops or within a community is somewhat of a tradition, think of the WI, or maybe you’ve attended Marna’s embroidery courses? The term ‘Stitch & Bitch’ was coined just after WWII, where communities and groups would form to share knitting, crotchet and embroidery skills, but groups like this extend further than establishing a new hobby or skill, it’s an opportunity to bond with others, perhaps share news and worries with friends, stitching topics of the group into the textiles. Sewing could be considered as a form of therapy, a means of focusing life’s tensions and issues into a creative and constructive project.

dalston-darlings-quiltPhoto: Liberty, Dalston Darlings Quilt

With the Women’s Institute celebrating their centenary year, I couldn’t miss this group of inspirational ladies out! The wonderfully British institute is still going strong, still steeped in tradition but propelling into the modern era. Working alongside Liberty of London two WI groups; the Dalston Darlings and the Shoreditch Sisters, created two inspiring community quilts, which have taken pride of place in the Liberty window displays. Constructed with Tana Lawn Liberty fabrics and decorated with endless applique and hand embroidery, the quilts evoke themes of community, feminism with the history of Liberty and the Arts & Crafts movement sewn into the seams.

Male Embroiderers

A history of embroidery tends to be somewhat stereotypical, a very sexist notion in this day and age, enough to make Germaine Greer squirm! Yes some areas of embroidery were considered women’s work, a domesticated craft for the female species. But there are very interesting, quiet elements within history where fellas embraced embroidery! Hooray!

To be an experienced sailor back in the 19th Century meant that you had to be competent with a needle and thread, if you were at sea for months at a time, repairing boats sails, sailing kits and uniforms were a necessity. However, sewing at sea propelled into complex needlework, known as ‘woolies’, sailors would embroider images of the ships that they served on.

During WWI, men who were severely injured were given embroidery projects as a form of rehabilitation, often considered as a solution to shellshock. Last year, St Paul’s Cathedral displayed an exquisite altar cloth; hand stitched during the war, by over 133 First World War servicemen – an early example of art therapy, which the British Army still uses to this day.

www.lacdao.comPhoto: St Paul’s, WWI Altar Frontal

Military quilts are an amazing example of sewing for rehabilitation; the V&A’s exhibition ‘Quilts 1700-2010’ revealed a phenomenal array of quilts created by servicemen recuperating from their war wounds.

military_quilt_brayleyPhoto: V&A Museum, Military Quilt, Francis Brayley, 1864-1877

The Subversive Stitch and Contemporary Embroidery

Contemporary craft is an ever evolving world which pushes boundaries past twee cushion covers and tea towels. Embroidery has taken on a new revolution, pushing past immaculate embroidery stitches and challenging our perceptions of a once domesticated task.

A fantastic example of subversive stitchers are infact the Suffragettes (my heroes!) although maybe not an obvious choice it demonstrates the power of the gentle art of sewing!

Hand embroidered flags, banners, rosettes and sashes were worn, paraded and displayed each presenting the uniform Suffragette colours, phrases such as ‘Votes for Women’ ‘Deeds not Words’ and possibly the most powerful ‘Democracy Begins at Home’. The banners were exquisitely crafted, carefully appliqued and decorated. A homely, quiet and domestic task of embroidery and sewing played a role in producing an effective propaganda tool, broadcasting their right for the vote, the right for freedom of speech and the absolute right for equality.


Photo: Wikipedia, Suffragette Banner – Musuem of London

This aspect of the Suffragette movement inspired Tracey Emin to get stitching with her collection of quilts and appliqued bags, adorned with angry statements and often sad stories contradict with the painstaking, quiet action of sewing.

Tracey Emin

Photo: Tracey Emin, ‘I do not expect to be a mother’ 2002

Creating a message and portraying a concept is a difficult task. Contemporary embroidery pushes boundaries, banishing domesticity, it’s more than executing uniform stitches. It challenges our perceptions and our opinions. The art of stitch is a hugely subjective, it envelops our heritage, embroidery is a craft which we call all relate to in some way. With the help of Marna and textile artists across the globe, the quiet craft of embroidery is reaching a revolution within the art world.

One thought on “a brief history of embroidery

  1. Love reading your blog. I am a life long crafter, embroidery was taught at primary school. You mentioned the WI, but didn’t mention the Embroiderers’ Guild. There is such a wealth of information to be found in both the local group and the national hq. Maybe your followers could check out their local branch, all kinds of stitchery happens there. And look out for the local branches’ exhibitions. A real treat.

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