History of Embroidery: A Close Look At Its Origin and Development

The word embroidery means ‘broderie,’ meaning ‘embellishment’ in French, and has been around since humans were able to create thread and fabric.

It is the art of decorating a material with a needle and thread to form unique designs and patterns.

Archaeological finds from around the time 30,000BC show fossilized remains of hand stitched and decorative clothing.

If you want to know more about the history of embroidery, I’ve done some research to explore the origins of this ancient needlework.

A brief history

Embroidery (Egypt) 14th Century
Embroidery (Egypt) 14th Century

Evidence shows us that embroidery was used by Ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Herbews and Phoenicians for decorating robes.

Some of the earliest origins of embroidery stem from China between the 3rd – 5th century, when silkworms were domesticated to produce silk.

Different Usage

During the Tang and Song Dynasty period, China was using this art form to tell stories of the Buddha.

Around the year 1000AD, this practice grew within the Christian church, and richly decorated garments and wall hangings were commissioned to display a church kingdom’s wealth.

Eve was even said to have sewed together fig leaves in the garden of Eden with decorative techniques.

How the art of embroidery traveled

Embroidery really took off in England around the Middle Ages, although in Europe there is evidence of it during the Viking Age in Sweden from as early as 700AD.

FUN FACT

Embroidery was seen as a luxury, and there were merchants that would pay high prices for embroidered canvas clothing.

Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry shows the Norman conquest of England in 1066 during the battle of Hastings and is one of the world’s most famous works of embroidery to date.

It’s thought to have taken over 100 years to be completely stitched and embroidered!

Rise

The craft of tapestry originated and became very popular after this, and it was common for upper class women to learn to embroider in their free time.

To this day, each part of the world has a unique style of embroidery.

History of embroidery in America

Native North American Ceremonial Manta Cleveland Museum of Art
Native North American Ceremonial Manta Cleveland Museum of Art

The history of embroidery in America starts with the native American Indians who used embroidery and decoration to express status and community.

During this time, native people created beauty from the limited resources they had, such as skins, hair, teeth and bird quills in their natural colors.

Natural Materials

Threads were colored with the juice of plants or animals.

Decorative embroidery was unique to the culture of the native American Indians, who used embroidery technique for centuries.

Porcupine quills could be used as needles, moose hair as threads, and dresses and deerskin shirts were created with borders and flying designs in different colors.

Other examples are textiles edged with embroidered fringes, hung with teeth, claws of game or beautiful shells.

Evolution of the technique

Over time, the sewing technique of fine crewelwork embroidery was practiced in New England, and was the first type of ornamental embroideries practiced by women of European heritage.

Take a look at a crewekwork piece getting made in the video below.

Embroidery: Crewel Work | How to Embroider a Jacobean Flower

Needlework

Needlework continued to be popular among more Puritanistic household women, when farms became well equipped with an abundance of materials.

Wool and flax were produced into thread and manufactured into cloth and fabrics.

Decor

They would create canvas work material and add embroidery designs for decoration.

Later on, the skill was taught in schools to women and the variety of domestic needlework developed into cross stitch, quilting, and other types of skilful stitchery, such as portraiture.

When did the first embroidery machine get invented?

Original Drawing of the Machine Invented By Joshua Heilmann
Original Drawing of the Machine Invented By Joshua Heilmann

Although the art was so popular for such a long time, a device for it didn’t exist until the 1800s. In 1828, Joshua Heilmann from France worked on the design of a hand embroidery machine.

Surprisingly he didn’t sell that many, although it revolutionized the industry and inspired many other engineers of the time.

Shuttle

His ‘shuttle’ embroidery machine consisted of a frame to hold fabric taut, a needle assembly, and a handle to work the needles.

The fabrics moved to meet the needle instead of vice versa as we see in modern machines of today.

Continuing the era of machine embroidery

In 1868, Isaak Grobeli from Switzerland created the first manually powered device. It is known as a ‘schiffli’ embroidery machine, meaning ‘little boat’ as the shuttle of the design reminded Grobeli of a ship’s hull.

He was inspired by the newly invented sewing machine, which used a threaded needle and a shuttle containing a bobbin of thread.

Development

The era of machine embroidery had begun!

The embroidering industry ceased during WW2. But, post war, improvements were made to the machines in America, Switzerland, and Germany and then machine embroidery really took off.

Who made the first embroidery?

Copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, acc. no. 09.184.216.
Copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, acc. no. 09.184.216.

There is evidence of embroidery being used in Ancient Egypt, as the collar of a dress for the King Tutankhamun was found in his tomb dating 1024B.C.

However, it can be dated back even further.

In China there could be the oldest proof of this craft we have on the planet.

FUN FACT

The practice has been dated back to 3000BC, with embroidery pieces and designs from this period still available today. Chinese technique uses fine strands of silk thread, a fabric that is still popularly used today.

Brief highlights in embroidery history

There are numerous collections of samplers around the world held in museums which date back past the millennia, showing the development of embroidery.

Some key periods are:

  • The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the older pieces of embroidery dating to the Middle Ages, 1066. The 70 meter tapestry is made of several pieces with differently joined borders made with chain stitch embroidery techniques.
  • Song Dynasty China, 960 – 1229. As Buddhism boomed in China, embroidery was widely used to honor Buddha statues and stories. A court maiden during the Tang Dynasty embroidered seven chapters, with a variety of stitches used of the Buddha sutra on one square foot of silk!
  • Pattern books specifically designed for the art of embroidering appear around the 16th century, with collections of printed designs or even embroidery samplers.
  • Lace used to embellish socks and collars was an important innovation of the fashion industry in the 17th century.
  • Quilting took a rise in the late 17th century, especially patchwork quilts. People began to consider the art as a decoration rather than a sign of wealth and status since it was now being used everywhere.
  • The first hand embroidery machine was designed some time in the 18th century, and the first machine was created in 1868.
  • The second half of the 19th century saw examples of modern, ribbon embroidered corsets and cross stitch designs across Europe.

High Fashion

Pierre Balmain adjusting a dress on model Ruth Ford in 1947 (photographed by Carl Van Vechten)
  • The idea of high fashion illuminated the beginning of the 20th century, which introduced embroidery decorated garments into a world of couture.
  • 1911 Singer invented the first multi-head embroidery sewing machine, equipped with 6 heads for faster stitches, and a pantograph attachment.
  • Post war, during the early 1950’s home machine embroidery exploded on the market.
  • The first computerized embroidery machines were introduced by Wilcom and were put up for sale for home use in 1980.

What is the significance today?

Unlike in early history, embroidery today doesn’t represent wealth or status.

Nowadays, it is used for decoration or to embellish or personalize a belonging or gift.

There are still skills and stitches to learn, however.

Skills

Traditional hand embroidery can be used to increase hand-eye coordination.

Chain stitch helps develop fine motor skills, color theory design, and planning skills.

NOTE

The art of embroidery is good for creativity development and will improve brain function. Embroiders who have mastered this craft say it can relieve stress and even be therapeutic!

Which countries are famous for embroidery?

While many countries use an embroidery stitch on touristy gifts such as tea towels, there are several renowned countries famous for embroidery today.

  • Embroidery in Ukraine is an ancient tradition dating back to the age of the Crimean Tatars, a recognized indigenous group to the country. Designs vary from village to village, but Ukraine is known for geometric and floral designs on embroidered clothing and household linens.
  • Palestine. Like Ukraine, they produced and mastered this skill for hundreds of years. Cross stitching is the most common type of embroidery seen in Palestine, and crafters there typically will embroider floral and geometric designs on clothing.
  • Tunisia is known for elaborate designs and often adds gemstones and sequins to their embroidery on clothing. Designs can be simple, and in Tunisia, a certain stitch design will (apparently) give you personal information about the wearer!
  • Serbia embroidery uses different ancient techniques, embroidery patterns, and colors. Many colors are used, although red is the more traditional color used in Serbian embroidery on their trees and floral designs.
  • Of course, India could not be left off the list! India uses different embroidery techniques depending on which state the materials have been decorated in. Traditional India Rajastani embroidery uses modern materials and silk thread. Here, the fabric is typically worn at wedding ceremonies.

Conclusion

The production of embroidery today looks very different from the embroidery of the past. Most embroidery is now created with a computerized machine using digitized software and patterns.

While the techniques for using embroidery have changed a lot since its origin, the purpose and use of embroidery has remained the same.

It remains a popular way to decorate and embellish items with brands and logos, and can lead to simply out-of-this-world creations.

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Kris Daub
Kris Daub
[email protected] byCurated I'm a maker at heart! I love to create and tech others to create. I particularly sewing and hand crafts like ebroidery. I also love larger home decorating projects. ✂️ 🧵