The History of Embroidery
Embroidery in one way or another has existed as long as people have been able to produce fabric. The word embroidery comes from the French word ‘broderie’ meaning embellishment. This textile art is the process of decorating fabric with a needle and either thread or a thicker yarn. The origin of embroidery is hard to find as each source differs slightly but is thought to be back in 30,000 BC; with the Cro-Magnons. Archaeologists recently found fossilised remains of decorative hand-stitched clothing and boots and even some with ivory beading. From these early times it has developed through different cultures in both similar and contrasting ways.
Chinese embroidery is probably one of the best known forms historically. Forming a long history since the Neolithic age the quality of silk fibre is astounding, as most Chinese fine embroideries are made using silk. Some ancient vestiges of silk production have been found in various Neolithic sites dating back 5,000–6,000 years in China. After the opening of Silk Route in the Han dynasty, the silk production and trade flourished. In the 14th century, the Chinese silk embroidery production reached its high peak. However in modern times more mass produced machine embroidery is more common place.
While Chinese embroidery is very ornate and delicate, comparatively more modern examples from Europe are distinctly different. An example of this lies with one of the most famous examples of embroidery in history, the Bayeux Tapestry. This piece of artwork depicts the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The tapestry measures 70 m x 50 cm, is embroidered with stem stitch and double couching on unbleached linen and is thought to have been embroidered in 1076. The style of this piece is less detailed and more two dimensional, most like due to the difference in material not only the technique. The courser yarn and linen as oppose to the finer silk accessible in China create a truly medieval masterpiece.
With every century, the techniques became more sophisticated, but all are based on the basic skills like: chain, blanket, satin, and running stitch. Embroidery in England and the whole of Europe became more and more popular as the nobility and Royal Families wanted to be distinguishable from the lower classes so more and more ornate and detailed embroideries were required. By the 13th century professional workshops of England created rich embroidery in metal thread (goldwork) and silk. This style was called Opus Anglicanum or "English work", and was famous throughout Europe.
It wasn’t until the year 1800 that what we now call tapestry became popular, especially among women in upper-class environments. They would usually embroider small images such as flowers or lettering. There are lots of paintings commissioned at this time that perfectly depict this pastime. Going forward only a few decades and embroidery had now become more accessible to the wider population. The help of printed patterns encouraged more people to create their own decorative motifs or clothing. One of the more common styles at this stage was Berlin wool work which was created using brightly coloured tapestry wools due to the increase in synthetic dyes. Berlin work was stitched to hand-coloured or charted patterns that left little room for individual expression.
In response to this came one of my favourite forms of needlework, interestingly due to a book written by the architect G. E. Street who encouraged a revival along with William Morris of ornate embroidery. Using techniques of freehand surface embroidery highlighting flat patterns with delicate shading in satin stitch. It was worked in silk or wool thread dyed with natural dyes on wool, silk, or linen. A market for mechanising the craft was also recognised during this time and during the industrial revolution. Joshua Heilmann began designing an embroidery machine which was a turning point at the time. This first piece of mechanised embroidery technology would be quickly followed by the more successful shuttle and chain stitch embroidery which allowed for embellishments to be created in a much smaller time frame.
Embroidery has been around for centuries and has gone from being exclusive to the royals and the wealthy to an accessible craft and hobby for many people. Of slightly more recent years it has begun to be thought of as more of an art form once again. The Society for Embroidered works is campaigning for embroidery to be recognised as not only a pastime but also an art form in itself with just as much weight in the art world as that of oil painters. I myself am a member of this group and strive for embroidery art to be seen as such. Hopefully due to the work of this group along with others such as the Royal School of Needlework it can soon be rediscovered by the masses but given its stature it deserves as a highly complex discipline and beautiful fine art.